The City Hall meeting had been long in preparation and short on funding. But there was no alternative once Zviko had thrown her hat into the ring, rallied by well-wishers, who were unsurprisingly mainly family members. She could make a difference, the township daughter who wanted to give back to her community.
Zviko had won a bursary for further education in a prestigious college, away from the slums. The long commute to her new school in the upmarket northern suburbs became an issue, negotiating public transport in the unrelenting early morning traffic jams. So, she eventually moved in with her mother's cousin in a part of the city where postal codes told their own story. Her roots, however, were still among people who lived across the railway line, a constant reminder of Zviko's journey from poverty.
As the hall filled up, the buzz of expectancy reminded Zviko that such public events could go either way. Rumours had already been circulating for months about city finances not being audited and the existence of a mafia-like mentality pervading the corridors of power. She had spent a sizeable amount of her limited budget on promotion, printing posters and paying runners to paste them around the townships. Many of them had already been defaced by the opposition and other hostile elements in the neighbourhood.
After paying attention to her best friend's advice on dressing for the cameras, Zviko wore a solid blue suit that complimented her skin tone. Nothing would detract her from feelings of confidence after investing time and money in her local beauty salon, where their makeup artist had helped Zvoko's ugly duckling to beautiful swan transformation. Zviko knew that her opponents were looking for any slight misstep which they could exploit in the media. Already unsavoury reports had been circulating about how she couldn't succeed independently and must have a male sponsor. For someone so young, had she slept her way up the political corridors of power? She had never been a great one for regaling tales of her youth on Facebook and Instagram, and her tech-savvy sister had successfully managed her social media presence so far.
As a first-time candidate for a major political party, she had done her homework on her 'spontaneous' speech, spending days rehearsing. The motley crowd in the hall settled down in anticipation as Zviko strode onto the stage with an air of confidence which only she knew did not exist.
"Ladies and gentlemen- welcome! I'm Zviko Chuma, the prospective candidate for your municipality. You have seen my face plastered all over the city." She had hoped she would get a murmur of welcome from the audience; they just carried on staring at her while some were still trickling in, trying to locate empty seats. The event was already beginning to have the hallmarks of unpredictability.
"Thank you for coming to this initial meeting, a precursor of the City Hall elections in a few months. I can see familiar faces among you and hope to help you make up your mind that I am the best person to represent you in City Hall. Yes, I would be the youngest woman to get elected in this municipality, filling the vacant post following the late Alderman Duby's demise. May his soul rest in peace. There is a time for everything, and we need Change now! Yes, I have not lived among you for some time, but my parents are still here; I went to school here, and I have not lost touch with my roots. I shall take you on a short history lesson of our southern suburbs, which we all know were built on the back of an influx of migrant labour. Virtually everyone here can trace their ancestry from neighbouring countries. We are part of the social fabric of this city…"
"We don't have all day! What are you going to do for us, which is any different from your predecessors?" The heckler's interjection aroused some laughter mixed with murmuring in agreement.
Zviko sensed she could lose her audience's attention soon. She had their concerns at her fingertips, but somehow her preamble had gone on longer than planned. She glanced at her team, who responded with gestures of encouragement behind the curtains. She continued,
"I'm glad that someone is listening! Yes, we don't have all day. I'll start by addressing the issues at hand. I left this neighbourhood a long time ago, but you know what, nothing much has changed! It's like we are in a time warp. The old post office building with walls plastered with old posters is still the same. The main high street is full of 'to let' signs, and this was even before Covid-19 resulted in many businesses going under. Have you seen any new developments, or is this part of the city dying before our eyes? When I went to school here, there were four high and seven primary schools, which has not changed, yet the population has doubled. The streets are still littered with malfunctioning lamp posts where birds are now nesting. Refuse collection is sporadic, so people create their rubbish pits in their backyards and burn waste, causing further pollution. Do you see the picture I am painting?"
A voice from the back of the hall shouted out amid mocking laughter, "Tell us something new!"
Another voice interjected, "Talk about the money we are already paying to transform this place. Many leaks have developed in the bucket collecting our funds. Where is the money going? Let's talk about the big C scandal, reported in our daily papers recently!"
Zviko tried to refocus the discussion. "Ladies and gentlemen. I am just as concerned as you are about our city's financial state, which is why I have joined the municipality race. Please don't believe everything in the media, and I am certainly not qualified to talk about the big C-Corruption. Your long-serving members in City Hall are better placed to field those questions. I am also not here to provide solutions on my own. We need to get a discussion going on the city we want. You and I have the solutions. This is your city, your future, and your taxes will pay for the transformation. Let's brainstorm about the city you want and then prioritise our needs. My team will be recording all your suggestions to add to our own. Trust me, we have solutions amongst us. I want to hear from you! Who would like to start the ball rolling?"
One hand shot up.
"I don't mean to be rude and show that you are still green around the gills. You want us to do all that textbook stuff, getting us to brainstorm as if we are in a workshop. All this talking, will it improve our lives? Once you have done your pitch, where are you going? Back to the northern suburbs where everything works!"
The room burst into a cacophony of voices as the meeting erupted into animated discussions. Zviko sensed that her democratic approach was not working with this audience. She was more comfortable answering a few questions while being shielded from the difficult ones. She had to take control.
Zviko gripped the podium, launched into a dialogue with her community and never looked back. Her campaign team came out to help field comments and reduce the chaotic shouting out of provocative statements. Order soon returned as animated people felt they, at last, had a say and a stake in the future. Their opinions were being heard. Even her challengers were sitting up and scribbling notes.
One young man in the audience talked eloquently about the need to maintain outdoor spaces where families could relax in secure environments, not the current wastelands with broken-down water fountains and unsafe playgrounds. He championed the demolition of dilapidated buildings where squatters had made their homes. What about a lick of paint on the old buildings and perhaps a new gymnasium or community hall where people could congregate and hold meetings, and the old folk could go for their socials?
As soon as he sat down, an older woman shared her despair over the lack of regular, affordable transport. Why can't the over 65s be subsidised or have free bus passes?
A young mother cradling a baby in her arms spoke passionately about her cramped and overcrowded municipal housing where property maintenance was a byword for neglect.
Not to be outdone, a grey-haired older man got up and, while leaning on his walking stick, mentioned the increasing lack of respect and social inclusion in the community. "What is the world coming to when older persons are no longer being cared for in the community?" He had even heard that decisions were being made without any consultation of older adults who used to be the community's glue. "What has happened to intergenerational social activities and creating age-friendly environments?"
Sitting back, looking attentive, Zviko let the community's ideas flow, and even she began to wonder whether she had not opened a pandora's box with this 'Let the people have a voice' approach.
As she mingled with the crowd during the short intermission, she could hear snippets of animated conversation, and one or two people approached her tentatively and said they had never been allowed to share their thoughts in such a large forum. They hoped Zviko was going to do something about all their brilliant suggestions.
Back at the podium, Zviko had only fifteen minutes left before the next candidate. A new contribution from someone who identified herself as a social community worker got a round of applause. She talked about community engagement and applauded Zviko for promoting social participation, which could morph into civil participation, something currently lacking. She elaborated,
"It is all very well to complain. Someone has to roll up their sleeves, and Zviko is leading by example, joining the fray to make a difference in the city." She continued,
"I'm surprised that so far, no one had mentioned the elephant in the room- unemployment. How will people have a better standard of living and pay rates and taxes to fund social services if they are not employed? The municipal police should also stop harassing the street vendors over unaffordable licences for the market stalls. Besides, someone needs to address the high fees for the provision of health services. People are dying needlessly because they can't afford medication and specialist services. We have no social system that supports the unemployed, as in other countries, and the majority of people are in the informal sector, so not necessarily paying tax. Zviko, judging by your campaign radio broadcasts, you can make a difference, and we know you can do the job!"
The woman sat down amid cheers. Zviko felt relief that the community worker, who was a distant relation, was not a potential rival after rousing the audience with her passionate contribution. A sense of optimism permeated through the audience. They could now envisage a place they could relate to, a city where they and their children would happily grow old. In the middle of the euphoria, someone shouted out,
"Its all very well to talk about improved services and all that. But our learned candidate has not told us how we are to finance this transformation. Another increase in taxes?" said a sullen-looking man in the front row.
Zviko's team began signalling to wrap up the consultation. If she did not end there, she would be cornered into promising the earth. Now was the time to retreat.
"I wish to thank you for the wonderful ideas shared during this city hall meeting. If you elect me, I cannot overemphasise the importance of us working together. Let's not kid ourselves, we have a rough road ahead, but the rewards are worth striving for. I'm counting on your support on voting day. Thank you and travel safely."
"Knowing you wannabe-politicians, that will be the last we will see of you in this neighbourhood," shouted a belligerent voice amid laughter.
"If you elect me, you will grow tired of seeing me. We are on this journey together," smiled Zviko as she gathered her papers to make way for the next prospective candidate approaching the podium.