On this Thursday morning, something was certainly amiss.
On a “normal” weekday, just after 0700 hours, traffic at the Mbudzi traffic circle would by that time long grinded to a halt.
But not on this day.
The traffic was still flowing smoothly. It was too good to be true.
On a “normal” day, that stretch of the highway would have not less than a dozen police traffic checkpoints, commonly known as “roadblocks”, but on this day we only encountered one just before Mvuma, which was not a roadblock in the strict sense of roadblocks as Zimbabweans know them on “normal” days.
It was a token roadblock where the police officers — who under “normal” circumstances wear clenched faces of an occupation force — were, for a change, smiling infectiously at us.
No fines record books, no spikes, and no drums barricading the road.
To our surprise, the police officers had stopped us not to inspect the vehicle or request for the driver’s particulars, but so that they could politely ask if we could carry one middle-aged woman from a nearby village — fully resplendent in the ruling ZANU-PF party regalia — to the same place that they suspected, and we later confirmed to them, we were going.
This was evidence that something was certainly amiss.
Just over 200 kilometres from Harare, there was a ground-breaking ceremony of the Beitbridge-Harare highway dualisation project at Chaka Business Centre in Chirumhanzu in the Midlands province.
Earlier on as we approached Chivhu, my colleague started having serious misgivings about the event that we were going to attend.
We started seeing hordes of people — most of them dressed in ZANU-PF regalia — either waiting for transport by the roadside or piling up in pick-up trucks and lorries.
From this point, we started having a rough idea of what the event that we were going to attend was to be like.
As soon as the woman that the police officers at the checkpoint near Mvuma begged us to carry came in, we instinctively fell silent.
And the fears that my colleague had were duly confirmed.
She was happy to have found transport to the event on time.
The ruling party had mobilised many people to come for an event were its members would be given jobs.
There were just too many people lining the highway who wished to attend the event, but there was not enough transport for everyone.
The lady we gave a lift was happy that the ruling party was doing this and that wonderful thing.
She talked until we arrived at the venue.
She thanked us and melted into the fast-swelling crowd of men, women and children.
Most of the adults had something to identify with the ruling party.
Chiefs, headmen and village heads had come from all over the Midlands province with all their subjects, to see the President making the symbolic start of the nearly US$1 billion road dualisation project.
School children from as far as Gweru, Kwekwe and other parts of the Midlands province had missed classes in order to provide entertainment to the thousands of people that the party had invited to witness the unveiling of the project.
Traditional musical groups had been bussed in from all corners of the province.
For the next three hours, the Zimbabwe Prison Services band, some traditional music groups and school children took turns on the stage to give their very best to what the master of ceremony repeatedly described as a “command crowd”.
These were complemented by energetic poets of all ages who took their time on the microphone to recite “revolutionary” poems that primarily revolved around praising President Robert Mugabe and his party.
Just after mid-day, a flotilla of helicopters with the guest of honour — the President — and his high-powered delegation, drew wild cheers from the “command crowd” as it flew past to land at a near-by school.
Shortly afterwards, the delegation arrived and the programme started in eanerst.
There were cheers from the villagers when the President announced that the project would create “tens of thousands of jobs”.
In fact, the President could have gotten it all wrong, because according to Transport and Infrastructural Development Minister, Joram Gumbo, the dualisation of this 580-kilometre stretch between Beitbridge and Harare would create between 300 000 and 330 000 jobs for unskilled villagers in the Midlands and Masvingo provinces; which translates to up to 569 manual labourers for every kilometre of the road.
This is just about the size of the country’s bloated civil service and one construction expert said the figures being touted were unrealistic because it would make road construction secondary to handling the logistical nightmares that come with feeding and housing such a crowd of people along the construction route.
Besides, the entire amount budgeted for the road (US$984 million), may not be enough just to pay the wages of these villagers over the three-year period it would take to complete this highway dualisation project.
In 1981, when then Prime Minister Mugabe was being taxed with the fact that some of his ministers were making outrageous statements on various issues at political rallies, he retorted: “When a politician is speaking at a political rally, he is speaking for the people, for effect, not too much attention should be paid to what he says. If you wish to know what is really happening, go to see him in his office, when he will answer as a minister of government.”
Could it be that Masvingo Provincial Affairs Minister Shuvai Mahofa and Gumbo were speaking to the people for effect?
Only time will tell.
Although the contract for the dualisation of the road was signed with Geiger International, an Austrian firm, in December last year, and the ground-breaking had been postponed several times, even when it eventually took place a good six months later, there was still no definite date as to when the actual work would start.
Erik Geiger, the vice president of Geiger International, talked in vague terms of “a few weeks’ time” while insisting that his company would complete the work on time.
“We will complete the road within the three-year contractual period,” is all Geiger would say.
Three years from May 18, 2017 is May 17, 2020.
It is yet to be seen if there would be a world-class highway as promised by the eponymous outfit, itself a father and son affair.
Meanwhile, the master of ceremony stridently emphasised that no one would be allowed to leave without eating their food because more than 80 cattle had been slaughtered for the villagers to feast on as they mark the beginning of the construction of the road.
In addition to this food that was being cooked on open fires by soldiers in uniform, a local five star hotel had been contracted to serve a full course meal to the VIPs at the event.
As confirmation that the event was more of a ruling party campaign rally than a government event, one ZANU-PF official asked this writer: “So you also cover our events?”
“Which one is your event?” I asked.
“This one,” he replied.
“I thought it was a government event?” I persisted.
“You think so?” he retorted.
In the meantime, the three presidential birds were up in the sky again, taking President Mugabe and his delegation to another event that was taking place on the same day a few hundred kilometres away — another event with all the hallmarks of a ruling party star rally — the commissioning of the Tokwe-Mukosi Dam.
On our return, we travelled unmolested all the way, like citizens of a truly free country, because this time around the only police checkpoint that had been there in the morning had been removed.
What a truly abnormal day it was.
One could not say how much this event and the one at Tokwe-Mukosi had chewed up in taxpayers’ funds or how much value these events had added to these projects, but what is certain is that when President Mugabe went to sleep on that day, he should have been a satisfied man, for it had been a very good day for his party.
It had reinforced its contact with the grassroots in the Midlands and in Masvingo province without paying a cent for it. The taxpayer had provided everything.
Last year, President Mugabe and other members of his party held a series of such meetings with the grassroots including with the youths and the war veterans.
At this rate, by the time campaigns for the 2018 elections start, ZANU-PF would have covered very good ground, taking full advantage of the conflation of the ruling party and government.
Talk of the power of incumbency. Financial Gazette