Ethnic repression against the Zulu-speaking Ndibele tribes here killed at least 20,000 in the mid-1980s – a sign of just how far Mr. Mugabe would go to hold onto power.
Small wonder then that the people of Matabeleland – and especially in the quiet regional capital, Bulawayo – view Saturday's presidential elections with a mix of hope and realism, and the knowledge that Mugabe will not go without a fight.
"If Mugabe wins, we'll have economic disaster in Zimbabwe, complete disaster," says Gordon Moyo, director of Bulawayo Agenda, a democracy-building nonprofit in Bulawayo.
"If [former finance minister Simba Makoni] wins, we'll have unrest, because Mugabe will fight. Either way, civil society should continue to press for our rights, and join hands with other democratic forces to make sure this government is delegitimized. Democracy is not final until it respects the will of the people," he says.
Zimbabwe has never been so close to economic collapse – and oddly, to political renewal – as it will be this month. An inflation rate of 100,000 percent, the result of socialist land redistribution, mismanagement, corruption, and the withdrawal of Western financial support, has created unspeakable hardship for the Zimbabwean people.
But hardship has also hardened the feelings of many Zimbabweans that the time has come for a change in leadership. The question now is how Mugabe's own party, the ZANU-PF – which controls the Army, police, the intelligence services, the election commission, and nearly all news media outlets – will respond to the public mood.
"What the history of Zimbabwe shows us is that the voice of the people is not necessarily as important as the part played by the elites," says Chris Maroleng, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane, South Africa. "If any change is to occur, it will not be a regime change, it will be a regime reconstitution, with the ruling elite from the ZANU-PF giving consent for Mugabe to be replaced. We may be seeing this occur."
With three major candidates running for president – including Mr. Makoni, perennial opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai, and Mugabe – some analysts say that the election is likely to go to a runoff, since no one candidate will be able to secure the 51 percent of the vote required for an outright victory. Of course, this scenario presumes that Saturday's vote will be free and fair.
There are few signs of that. Several foreign election monitoring missions have been denied accreditation, and George Charamba, the spokesman for the Ministry of Information has publicly announced that they would scrutinize any request for accreditation by any foreign journalists, sifting out those from "hostile" Western countries such as the US and Britain.
In recent years, the strongest source of political opposition has come from Mr. Tsvangirai, a former union leader turned politician. While Tsvangirai is credited with courage –facing arrest, including a police beating last year that left his skull cracked – he is also criticized by opposition supporters for lack of strategic vision. In 2005, his Movement for Democratic Change split. One faction is pushing Tsvangirai as their presidential candidate, while another faction – strongly supported in Matabeleland – has thrown its support behind Makoni.
Many opposition leaders now believe that Mugabe can only be removed if his own ZANU-PF party removes him, and if they replace him with someone from within. Makoni, many Zimbabweans say, is that man.
Makoni's credentials as an economist – and his lack of ideological baggage from the liberation struggle – have made him a palatable alternative for many opposition supporters, as well as those within the ruling party who recognize the costs of economic collapse.
Makoni rose up the ranks of the ZANU-PF, serving as the party's representative in Western Europe. But his outspokenness has gotten him in trouble. After proposing the devaluation of the Zimbabwe dollar in 2005, Makoni was declared an "enemy of the state" by his former mentor, Mugabe.
Agrippa Madlela, a former president of the defunct liberation group ZAPU who is now running for a senate seat, says Mugabe "will play dirty," but he thinks the opposition's best chance is to back a single candidate who can push Mugabe out from within ZANU-PF. He has given up on Tsvangirai, who has run against Mugabe twice and failed. Now he backs Makoni. "I think if we support [Makoni], we can get rid of Robert Mugabe. This is the only way to spell the end of the octopus."
Resilience in Matebeleland
Paul Siwela, a former senior leader in ZAPU, says that Mugabe's firm control of the electoral process means only he can win Saturday's vote. But he sees "no alternative" to Ndibeles voting in force for opposition parliamentarians who will protect Ndibeles' rights and to push for greater autonomy.
"We are asking, instead of separation, we should have autonomy under a federal government. The status quo is unsustainable. This is going to explode into a crisis with terrible consequences."
Driving his rickety Datsun sedan through the streets of Bulawayo – a cellphone perched against his ear – Pastor Dumiso Matshazi, an opposition candidate, is handing out leaflets and giving campaign speeches at discreet small rallies.
He knows that the ruling party has all the advantages, with free advertising in state-owned newspapers and TV and radio stations, and with electoral officials who will inevitably tip the balance when they can in the ruling party's favor. But he senses that Zimbabweans, and especially of Matabeleland, are willing to make sacrifices this time.
"In 1985, during the council elections, people still voted even after their people were killed," says Pastor Dumiso, struggling to get the Datsun to switch gears. "You have to understand the Ndibele mind-set. It's both resignation and resistance. They think, 'You've already killed so many of us, what do we care if you kill a few more.'"