Mrs. Mudekwa votes with 'bobby' at door

The prints of Rona mudekwa's bare feet were etched, along with hundreds of others, in the mud outside the small Salvation Army chapel. She was among the first 500 people to turn up at this mission school deep in an African tribal reserve to vote in majority rule elections now under way here.

She did it, she explained, "because I want Zimbabwe." Now, after 90 years of white minority rule, she and her fellow blacks are finally taking possession of it.

Zimbabwe is the name this rich swath of southern Africa will assume after elections here consign colonial Rhodesia to the history books.Some 886,000 people went to the polls on Feb. 27, the first of three days of balloting to determine the first internationally recognized, majority-rule government for Britain's last African colony.

During the three-day period, voters are going to some 657 polling places spread across Rhodesia. The British government is going to elaborate lengths to assure that the voting is on the up-and-up, even to the point of transporting over 500 bobbies (British policemen) here to stand watch near the ballot boxes.

One bobby stood outside the cracked-plaster chapel where Mrs. Mudekwa voted, an incongruous sight as brightly dressed African women carrying babies on their backs scrutinized him in puzzled silence.

But this British penchant for worrying about appearances -- in this case, the appearance of a fair election -- may have paid off.

Many official election observers here are no longer hewing to the requirement that the polling here to completely "free and fair." Indeed, many are questioning whether that was ever a realistic criterion to apply to elections in a country just emerging from a bitter, seven-year-long guerrilla war.

Instead, they now are asking whether, despite numerous charges of voter intimidation, the elections provide a reasonable opportunity for the expression of the will of the majority here.

And even though the voting exercise, at this writing, was only one-third over , a number of local experts already were leaning towards a "yes" answer.

The reason is because many of the black voters seem convinced -- due in part to a massive advertising campaign by the care-taker British government -- that their votes will indeed be secret.

As Mrs. Mudekwa calmly observers, "You are free to vote for whoever you want."

"I find that people really believe the vote is secret," says Sir John moreton , a retired diplomat serving as an official British observer. "And that," he adds, "is the greatest guarantee against intimidation."

A number of other observers tend to agree and, barring disclosures of major irregularities over the next few days, many will probably come away with fairly favorable reports for their home governments. Many seem convinced that the elections may be flawed -- but not fatally so.

Indeed, charges and countercharges about unfair campaign practices continue here, even as the voting takes place. Not far from the chapel where Mrs. Mudekwa voted, operatives of the three main political parties detailed how their rivals had perpetrated abuses.

They said campaign that workers were beaten and arrested by government troops , that party political posters were torn down, and that white farmers threatened their workers with punishment if they voted for one of the more radical parties.

But some voters seem unperturbed by the acrimony around them. Elias Misi, a worker at a fish-packing plant on Lake Kariba, says he decided who to vote for just by listening to the candidates on the radio and reading about them in the newspaper.

Now, he says, it is time to elect "the right, proper government." And he is already looking beyond the elections, listing his expectations for the future.

Those are, he says, "first of all, to stop the war. Bring equality to blacks and whites, and better salaries for Africans."

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