Thousands support rally by Zimbabwe opposition


ZIMBABWE: Tens of thousands of supporters of Zimbabwe's opposition movement descended on a football ground in the middle of President Robert Mugabe's Harare constituency yesterday to hold an election rally calling for a regime change.

In a show of strength that is likely to cause concern among members of Zimbabwe's ruling party, supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) almost filled to capacity the dilapidated football ground in Harare's Highfield suburb.

During Zimbabwe's 2000 parliamentary elections MDC supporters rarely gathered in large numbers for fear of being attacked by Zanu-PF war veterans and youth militia.

The first of the people began arriving for the scheduled rally at the arena - which was the focal point for many of President Mugabe's Independence Day celebrations during the mid-1980s - shortly before 9am, and by 10.30am the crowed had increased to at least 25,000.

Many of those who gathered were locals from Highfield, but thousands of others walked up to 10 kilometres to be at the first MDC rally to take place in what had been considered in the past a Mugabe stronghold.

Highfield resident William Nube (28) said he was no longer afraid of the Zanu-PF party, which stands for the Zimbabwean African National Union Patriotic Front, because it did not have as many supporters any more.

"I have always supported MDC, but it was difficult in the past because I was afraid of being beaten. But Zanu-PF is not so strong now.

"There is a need for food, jobs and peace to prevail, so we must change the government," he told The Irish Times.

Sitting beside William at the front of the rally was 25-year-old Anbgive Muchacha from Kambuzuma township, which he said was seven kilometres away from the Highfield football ground.

"MDC is the party of the future so I won't support Zanu-PF. We must change the government," he said earnestly.

From the outset, MDC activists began leading the crowd in a rhythmic electioneering chant, which when translated into English, called upon them to "lift the opposition up and then throw them down to the ground".

Other, less menacing mantras, from the crowd translated as "bye, bye Zanu-PF - welcome MDC".

With open hands raised in the air - an MDC physical expression akin to the ANC's closed fist - the crowed responded enthusiastically to the traditional chants by repeating them back at the stage in harmonic unison.

As the morning wore on the tempo steadily increased until parts of the crowd broke into a frenzied tribal dance. Once the dance gained in momentum and size, the supporters took off at a run around the football ground, waving their flags and singing as they repeatedly moved past the crowed.

Finally, the whole arena erupted into histrionics with the arrival of MDC party leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Waving to his ecstatic supporters he urged quiet, so he could speak, and they dutifully conformed to his request.

Slipping effortlessly between the local dialect and English, Tsvangirai extolled the virtues of the average Zimbabwean before stating defiantly: "Harare will never be Zanu-PF again."

The former union leader, who owes his initial support base to the thousands of Zimbabweans who received the minimum wage following his negotiations with the government, went on to say that President Mugabe had no option but to leave office because he had lead the country to a point of lawlessness.

In a reference to Zimbabwe's out-of-control inflation rate, he asked how President Mugabe could say the government was improving the poor economic situation when "this is the only economy where millionaires are poor".

Tsvangirai made a point of praising President Mugabe for efforts as a freedom fighter, but he insisted he had failed in his duty as Zimbabwe's president over the last five years.

"Mugabe's legacy needs to be reversed. How can you starve your own people," he asked. "What Zimbabwe needs is a new vision that is able to respond to the national crisis. Those who accuse us of selling out the country do no know anything.

"No one can tell me that I am less a patriot than Mugabe, and British prime minister Tony Blair has nothing to do with Zimbabwe, I tell you."

After Tsvagirai's speech the crowd surged towards the stage to escort their leader from the arena.

Hundreds of MDC youths then piled into open-backed trucks, and, with banners and flags in hand drove through the streets of Highfield in open defiance of a small band of riot police waiting nervously in a van.

As I drove with a few colleagues back towards the city centre, a procession of young male MDC supporters began running along the main highway in a fashion not dissimilar to that of a group of Zulu warriors on their way to battle.