For Zimbabwean Mike Maseko, the journey home is a bitter reminder of his country's decline. It's a trip Maseko makes almost every week, driving the 800 km from Johannesburg to Bulawayo in his blue Toyota minibus. Before setting out, he packs the van with groceries and televisions, furniture and children's toys, carefully concealing envelopes filled with South African rand so the corrupt border guards who inspect his vehicle won't confiscate the money. The cash and consumer goods are gifts from Zimbabwean expatriates in South Africa to their desperate families at home. Maseko, 32, makes roughly $700 from each trip; but for the families in Zimbabwe, where food is scarce and jobs are even scarcer, his cargo can mean the difference between life and death.
More than 3 million Zimbabweans about a quarter of the entire population have left their country, many in the past five years, as President Robert Mugabe has tightened his grip on power. In the first decade of independence from white rule, Zimbabwe boasted a vibrant developing economy and one of the best education systems in Africa. Those achievements have turned to dust. The economy is the fastest-shrinking in the world. Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans have fled across the borders to Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia, or to Australia, Britain, Canada and the U.S. But the vast majority perhaps as many as 2 million now make South Africa their home.
Maseko's story is typical. He moved to Johannesburg in 1993 in search of work. After taking odd jobs, he started his transport business four years ago. But he won't be voting in this week's parliamentary elections. Last year, Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party barred all expats, except for diplomats, from casting a ballot; a Supreme Court ruling two weeks ago confirmed the ban. That decision rankles with the millions of Zimbabweans, up to half the voting-age population, living in exile. If ZANU-PF wins or fixes a two-thirds majority, it will be able to change the constitution, making it easier for Mugabe to stay on or handpick his successor. "Of course, [Mugabe] doesn't want us to vote," Maseko says. "Most of us have left because of him, so he knows we will vote against him. But in a democratic country, all of us should have the right to choose our leaders."
That right has proved unpalatable to Mugabe. In 2000, the Zimbabwean President was shocked when changes to the constitution he wanted were rejected in a national referendum. During parliamentary elections a few months later and the presidential campaign in 2002, ZANU-PF used police and trained thugs to attack the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), bullying, beating up and even murdering opposition supporters to ensure victory. The MDC, led by former union boss Morgan Tsvangirai, struggles on. While violence in the run-up to this week's vote has been only sporadic, independent observers, human-rights groups and MDC officials say that's because Mugabe is now using more subtle means to ensure victory. ZANU-PF controls the electoral commission, and has closed most of the independent media outlets in Zimbabwe. The party also oversees the electoral count and voter rolls which opponents allege are swollen with "ghost" voters. Ironically, even reforms urged by the MDC are being turned by ZANU-PF to its own advantage. Translucent ballot boxes, for instance, meant to symbolize an open voting system, will instead enable observers to see how people vote, warn ZANU-PF officials. After the last few years of state-sponsored thuggery, the threat is clear. "You don't have to murder now," says MDC M.P. David Coltart. "The mere presence [of those behind past violence] is enough to intimidate."