THOSE who despair of Africa - and it is hard sometimes not be count oneself among their number - should look at this weekend's pictures of Zimbabweans patiently queuing for hours to cast their votes in the presidential election. The scenes bring to mind those long lines that formed outside polling booths in the villages and townships of South Africa when the first election was held there under universal suffrage in 1994.

If the evidence of the opinion polls and of the mass rallies held by the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe can be trusted, a substantial proportion perhaps a majority - of the electorate will want Morgan Tsvangirai to be its next presiden rather than Robert Mugabe. Whether this preference will be honoured in the electoral process and immediately beyond it is by no means certain. Today, however, there should be a moment to honour the courage of Mr Tsvangirai and his supporters in the face of state oppression and of all those Zimbabweans who are insisting on exercising their democratic right to vote in what they probably know to be a flawed election.

Although the post-colonial experience of the transfer of Western democratic systems to Africa has not on the whole been encouraging, Zimbabwe's example shows that the basic principle of each person's right to participate in the choice of his or her leaders has taken root and, though often abused, survives.


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