On the slow overnight train from Johannesburg to the Zimbabwe border, the talk is all about whether the country’s election on Monday could spring a surprise and topple the ZANU-PF government.
Regular travellers carrying maize, blankets and washing powder sat beside voters heading home for Zimbabwe’s first election since autocratic long-time leader Robert Mugabe was ousted eight months ago.
The six-carriage train drew out of Johannesburg’s central Park station in the early evening on Friday for a 15-hour, 600-kilometre (370-mile) journey through a cold winter night.
“The people of Zimbabwe need a new life so they can forget about the hard times we had under that old man Mugabe,” said passenger Emile Manyikunike, 36, wearing a black leather jacket and green Bob Marley t-shirt.
“People were being beaten up by police for disagreeing with the government, and we could not even trust our neighbours because every other person was a spy for ZANU-PF,” he told AFP.
Manyikunike said he supports Nelson Chamisa, the young leader of the opposition MDC party who hopes to defeat Mugabe’s former ally and successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ZANU-PF party.
Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed and millions fled abroad — often to neighbouring South Africa — to seek work and escape the repressive regime.
“Chamisa needs to ensure that all Zimbabweans have jobs so that even the ones that escaped can come back and we can rebuild the country,” Manyikunike told AFP.
“This train is taking me home so that I can vote and bring change.”
‘We want a new country’
Fellow passenger Gertrude Tshabalala, 58, a domestic worker in South Africa, was heading back to visit her four grandchildren, carrying cooking pots, canned food and meat to supplement scarce supplies in Zimbabwe.
She doubted whether Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF, which has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980, could be beaten in a country with a history of fraud-riddled elections.
“ZANU-PF always wins — no matter what,” she said. “But my two grandkids are old enough to vote this year and I just hope their votes count unlike ours in the past.”
For one mother-of-two on board, who declined to give her name, the election is a chance to register her anger at the Mugabe years and try to throw out his ZANU-PF party.
“We are going back home because we want a new country. It was 37 years with that old man ruling — he was greedy and wanted everything for himself,” said the nurse, who has worked in Johannesburg for six years.
“I am going to vote for the young Chamisa. The old guys want the old days. Their brains are old too, they can’t think straight.”
The recently-refurbished train, which came back into service in February after being shut for three years, only had about 100 passengers and was hit by regular power cuts inside the carriages.
Pap and a beer
A small dining car sold pap — maize porridge — steak and chicken, along with beer and cider to passengers who paid 190 rand ($14) for a seat or 310 rand for a bed in a cabin, plus 60 rand for a pillow, sheets and thin blanket.
Some women sitting on the floor sang hymns before lying down to sleep in the dark after guards had checked their tickets.
The train terminates at Musina, about 10 km short of the border, with travellers heading into Zimbabwe taking mini-bus taxis to the crossing point into Beitbridge.
On the South African side of the border, Zimbabwean truck driver Andrew Kumalo, 45, disagreed with most voters on the train.
“The country needs experience not an experiment,” he said. “A new broom sweeps better, but an old blanket comforts better. We must keep our revolutionary party.”