By some estimates, there are more than two million Zimbabweans living in South Africa. Some left home seeking work, while others were seeking refugee status, claiming they were victims of political oppression. Most of them will not be voting in Thursday's parliamentary election. A Zimbabwean human rights group organized a "mock election" Tuesday to allow them to cast protest ballots in Pretoria. But some Zimbabweans living in South Africa seem to have given up on the idea of changing their government, and say elections are a waste of time.
There is really no way of knowing exactly how many Zimbabweans are living in South Africa. Some refugee groups say it could be more than 2.5 million. Even half that number would be significant, give that there are only about 5.6 million registered voters in Zimbabwe.
A coalition of Zimbabwean activist groups organized what they call a "mock election" this week. About a thousand Zimbabweans living in South Africa gathered in front of the Zimbabwean embassy in Pretoria to cast fake ballots. Organizer Elinor Sisulu called it a symbolic gesture of protest.
"The mock vote came about as a request from some very young people, Zimbabwean refugees who are torture victims… mostly refugees and asylum seekers, who would like to make their voice heard [about] what is going on in Zimbabwe and at least register their voice,” she noted. “They would like ideally to be at home to vote, but it's not possible."
The coalition organized similar "mock elections" in London and Munich. They plan to release the "results" of their fake poll on Friday. Ms. Sisulu thinks the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is likely to come out on top.
"I think it's quite obvious that the Zimbabweans who have left, especially the ones in South Africa, are people who left partly because they could see no future in Zimbabwe, and they could see no possibility of change," she noted. "So they are the ones most likely to vote for the opposition. The very fact that they left Zimbabwe, I suppose, indicates a vote with their feet, that they're not happy with what's going on."
Only soldiers and diplomats have the right to cast ballots outside the country in a Zimbabwean poll. Most Zimbabweans who have come to South Africa to escape political persecution say it is not safe to go back to Zimbabwe to vote. Those who have come as so-called "economic migrants" say they either cannot afford to, or they just do not want to.
In the Johannesburg neighborhood of Melville, most of the 20 or 30 street hawkers who line the sidewalks every day are Zimbabweans. Groups of young men spread their handicrafts out on blankets or stroll around to trendy restaurants, offering their wares to lunchtime diners. They sell working radios made from coathanger wire, beaded lizard-shaped keychains, and frogs made from scrap metal.
Standing behind his array of wire figurines, Jimmy Nyaruwa scoffs at the idea of making the hour-long journey to Pretoria to vote in a mock election.
"They can just go and vote there, but me I can't go. It's a waste of time to go and vote, you see," he said.
Mr. Nyaruwa's main priority is making enough money to support his family. The 28-year-old has a wife and a baby girl to feed here in Johannesburg. He also sends money and groceries home every month to his unemployed parents in Harare, and he pays school fees for his younger sister and two brothers.
He says his family is suffering. They cannot afford to buy food. But he never even considered going back to Zimbabwe to vote, because he says it would not change anything.
"I won't go back and vote because it's obvious that Mugabe will win," he added. "Because of his style. No, there's no point to go and vote you see. Otherwise, it's a waste of my time to go and vote."
Most of the other Zimbabwean street hawkers in Melville say pretty much the same thing. They wish things back home were different, but they have little faith that change will come through the ballot box.
The head of a Johannesburg-based democracy-building group sees that kind of apathy as a major danger for Zimbabwe. Denis Kadima, head of the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, says civic groups and international observers have questioned the integrity of Zimbabwe's last two elections. There are already complaints surfacing about this poll.
"The fear now is that elections will lose their meaning,” said Mr. Kadima. “I think what is important now is to see institutions like the African Union and SADC... to really take this matter seriously because it has been going on and on. Once people lose faith in democracy... At the end of the day, people will end up not believing in elections as an effective way to effect change. And when people don't feel that they have that option, you end up with undemocratic means of accessing power."
The Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA) exists to promote credible elections and democratic governance. Over the last seven years, EISA has observed elections in every country in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) including two in Zimbabwe.
But EISA was not invited to observe this poll. Neither was the SADC Parliamentary Forum, a group of regional lawmakers who issued critical reports about the last two elections. And neither will the Commonwealth group of nations, which suspended Zimbabwe from its ranks after the 2002 presidential election failed to meet its standards. Zimbabwe later quit the Commonwealth altogether.
There are observers from the African Union and SADC governments. But most of the 500 accredited observers come from individual African countries and political parties. Mr. Kadima says that creates a credibility problem.
"It appears that anyone who could provide an independent assessment of the election has been sidelined,” added Mr. Kadima. "Because, you see, most of the observer teams, they are coming from governments. And as you know governments tend to be restricted by diplomacy and such principles. Those political parties invited are mainly those from the liberation movements, which can only display some solidarity with the government in Zimbabwe, or let's say the ruling party in Zimbabwe."
Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, on Wednesday blasted the head of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) observer mission, a South African cabinet minister, for making positive comments about Zimbabwe's electoral process and the overall atmosphere ahead of the poll. The party's secretary general accused SADC of wanting to "rubber-stamp" a "fraudulent ZANU-PF victory."
A similar controversy erupted last week over comments by the head of the South African government observer mission. But he said he was misquoted, and the MDC backed down after meeting with him. The South Africans emphasized their commitment to neutrality throughout the electoral process.
But many Zimbabweans remain skeptical. On the sidewalks of Melville, a street hawker who gives his name only as Michael volunteers an opinion that shows deep mistrust of both Zimbabwe's ruling party and of South Africa's.
"I was thinking if there was someone who can monitor the elections, not the South Africans, but some other outside countries to do the fair elections, [opposition leader Morgan] Tsvangirai was going to win,” said Michael. “But right now I don't think Tsvangirai is going to win, because ZANU already won the election, you see."
Mistrust of the electoral process has reached the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube. Over the last week, he has repeatedly said the election has already been rigged, and has called for peaceful "Ukraine-style" mass protests to remove Zimbabwe's President, Robert Mugabe. Zimbabwe's ruling party spokesman called the archbishop "a mad liar."