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Gary Younge
In townships, the struggle to survive eclipses politics

And then you are off into urban wilderness. Just as you think you have left the city and entered the low trees and high skies of the veld, small conurbations pop up.

Like the impromptu religious meetings of followers of the Apostolic faith who dress all in white and congregate in small clusters by the roadside, the townships look as though they have emerged from nowhere.

But they are the product of the warped racial and economic logic of Rhodesian social engineering.

Dzivaresekwa was built to house black domestic servants who worked for white families in the north-west suburbs. Now it is home to black bank clerks, students, labourers and the vast numbers of unemployed. Separate and unequal - the inequities and iniquities of the past literally cemented in the present.

In a private taxi the journey would take a quarter of an hour, but it would cost more than one-third of a week's wages. So, with the exception of the few who have cars, most come in and out of the city in "commuter taxis" - small minibuses which are often so crammed that the man who collects the tickets hangs out of the window.

Amid the crush, office workers struggle to preserve the integrity of their ironed neatness. Children sit on strangers' laps and young women make an effort to keep a dignified distance from young men. From beginning to end, the journey takes about an hour - commuter taxis stop wherever a hand goes out on the road or a voice cries out from within.

At the Ndlovus in Dzivaresekwa two "aunties", Margaret and Faithful, are on the porch surrounded by maize. They have spent most of the day picking the crop - grown on the small allotment near the house - and sitting, chatting and shelling the ears in the shade as the maize dries in the sun. When they are done they will take it to the local shop and have it ground into flour to make their staple food, mealie meal.

At the Ndlovus at the moment it is mealies with everything. "We would like to give you some chicken and rice but with the present situation we cannot afford such things," says Faithful. So mealies it is. Two or three nights a week they have two or three small chunks of beef with it; the rest of the time it comes with vegetables and a little sauce.

After dinner Peter, Margaret's nephew, takes me out. Like most houses in Dzivaresekwa, the Ndlovus' is quite crowded. There are two other families renting from his aunts: seven adults and four children in a five-bedroom bungalow.

There is some common space - a living room, kitchen, inside toilet and washroom -but for it all to work, says Peter, each family lives pretty much autonomously.

Out on the street there is a sound rarely heard in Britain any more apart from on "problem estates" - children playing after dark. Chasing each other, pushing tyres around or just running for no apparent reason, they are unaccompanied and apparently unfettered by fears of random attack and abuse by strangers.

"It is safe here," says Peter. "Apart from political violence, it is very safe. Some thieves, but not many, and not many guns." The most constant source of tension, he says, is between supporters of the Caps and the Dynamos - the two biggest football teams in Harare.

Still he wants to leave. The 27-year-old clerk in a tobacco company dreams of a small place of his own with a wife and no lodgers in a township nearer Harare.

But his dream remains a long way off. In good years tobacco may make millions for the farmers but Peter earns about £14 a week. He spends £2.50 on transport and £2 on rent. By the time he has paid for food, bills and clothes there is little left. In bad years, and thanks to the land invasions of tobacco farms this is about as bad as it gets, he risks getting laid off.

He has a girlfriend in a township some miles away but, given the current state of the economy, he doubts he will ever be able to afford the lobola (bride price). And the house? He shrugs. "I dream and I pray," he says.

There are few distractions for a young man in Dzivaresekwa. One place, a few miles up the road, occasionally shows poor quality films and around the corner from the Ndlovus there is the Kadada nightclub, which has live bands and sometimes a beer-fuelled punch-up.

Otherwise you just stay in and watch state television or go out and wander around until you're bored or tired. During the tobacco sales season Peter has to be at work by 6.30am and is not home until around 6pm so he usually stays in.

Spend one night in a township and you are struck by an incongruity. If there is a race war in Zimbabwe then nobody has told most of the black people who make up more than 98% of the population. The subject of white Zimbabweans did not come up once, unless I raised it, and then it was dismissed pretty quickly.

White Zimbabweans are trying to predict black Zimbabweans' next move on a daily basis; most black Zimbabweans are too busy trying to struggle through their daily lives to worry about their white counterparts. But both black and white are worried about the government and the economy - albeit for very different reasons.

On the way back home Peter stands and stares in front of a poster advertising a rally the next day for the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change. He winces intensely. Even though the huge majority of people who have been killed in the recent political violence are black, there is no contingency plan to rescue them if things go wrong. So politics is for the brave, the rich, the stupid and the powerful.

Peter freely admits he is none of these. He will go to the polls for the MDC but he will not go out on a limb for them. "Here politics is crazy," he says. "They will kill you for a T-shirt. Even if you are not wearing it but you have it in your house. And nobody will protect you."

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