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Mat’land census and voter figures: Are they really manipulated?

When the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZIMSTAT) released its 2022 population and housing census preliminary report last month, there was a furore in Matabeleland with key stakeholders questioning, dismissing, and poking fun at the findings which placed the population of the region’s three provinces at the bottom of seven others in the country.

According to the ZIMSTAT 2022 census preliminary report, Zimbabwe’s population grew by 16.2 percent from 13,061,239 in 2012 to 15,178,979 in 2022 with an annual growth rate of 1.5 percent.

The report shows that Bulawayo Metropolitan Province’s population, which is the lowest in the country, which stood at 653,337 in 2012 now stands at 665,940 after marginally growing by 12, 603 (2 percent).

Second from the bottom is Matabeleland South whose population figures slightly went up from 683,893 to 760,345 during the period under review while Matabeleland North, which is third from last now has a population of 827,626 up from 749,017 in 2012.

Harare Metropolitan, which remains the country’s most populous province now has a population of 2,427,209 up from 2,123,132 in 2012.

Table 1.4: Annual Population Growth Rate by Province 2012-2022

Province2012 Population Census2022 Population CensusGrowth Rate
Bulawayo653,337665,9400.2
Manicaland1,752,6982,037,7621.5
Mashonaland Central1,152,5201,384,8911.8
Mashonaland East1,344,9551,731,1812.5
Mashonaland West1,501,6561,893,5782.3
Matabeleland North749,017827,6261.0
Matabeleland South683,893760,3451.1
Midlands1,614,9411,811,9081.2
Masvingo1,485,0901,638,5391.0
Harare2,123,1322,427,2091.3
Total13,061,23915,178,9791.5

The population figures which came hard on the heels of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC)’s statistics of registered voters per province ahead of the delimitation exercise, also queried by stakeholders, have puzzled many in Matabeleland, especially those in Bulawayo who had estimated the city’s population to be at over 1 million as back as 2013.

ZEC statistics on the voter population as of June 10, 2022, showed that a total of 5 804 975 people had registered.

Out of that number, Matabeleland South, Bulawayo, and Matabeleland North had the lowest numbers of registered people at 267 308, 270 914, and 340 405 respectively.

Mthwakazi Republic Party (MRP) has said it will soon conduct its own census in Matabeleland using chiefs in rural areas and local authorities in urban centres while rejecting preliminary ZIMSTAT results describing them as extremely “flawed.”

“We have always argued about the population results of Matabeleland and the Midlands, alias Mthwakazi,” said MRP president Mqondisi Moyo. 

“I analysed these results after the 2012 results looking at 2002 figures as well. The margin of it was similar for 2002 and 2012. When I wanted to challenge this in 2013, I engaged the Bulawayo City Council (BCC) and by then they projected that the population of Bulawayo was over 1.2 million.”

He further said: “They (BCC) had even said the biggest suburb in Bulawayo was Cowdray Park which they said had about 150, 000 people followed by Nkulumane which had 60, 000 people. How many new suburbs have been built after that? Cowdray Park keeps on extending, Emganwini and other suburbs. So, their figures do not add up.”

He said the ‘deliberate’ suppression of Matabeleland figures would perpetuate the region’s underdevelopment and marginalisation.

“The population results determine how resources will be allocated to people, meaning that when they suppress our figures in Matabeleland or Mthwakazi, 60 percent of resources that sustain Zimbabwe are from Mthwakazi, so our resources will be taken to Mashonaland. We are not going to accept these figures.” Ambrose Sibindi, a Bulawayo resident, said the census figures were shocking.

“We wouldn’t have expected that the population of Bulawayo for the past 10 years would grow just by 12, 603,” he said.

“If you look at the expansion of Bulawayo in terms of the new suburbs that have come up since 2012 whereby 10 years ago, Pumula South was just a few houses but look at what is happening there today. Go to Emganwini, go to areas like Emhlangeni and Magwegwe West.”

He said the increase in accommodation demand in Bulawayo was testimony enough that the city has significantly grown.

Sibindi was however quick to say the research was needed to establish why the figures are too low.

“These figures are very fake,” said Mkhululi Tshuma, a political analyst.

“They do not reflect what is on the ground at all. The challenge we have in Zimbabwe is that everything is looked at with an eye on the election. Declaring the real number of inhabitants in the city means more resources now have to be channelled there. It’s sad that the authorities prefer to under-declare for obvious political reasons.”

He said the figures were meant to further marginalise Matabeleland.

“It is for this reason that all Matabeleland provinces including Bulawayo are said to have the least number of inhabitants,” he said.

“Bulawayo by being the region’s economic hub is surprisingly the one said to have the least number of inhabitants yet many people from the surrounding rural communities have settled here. You will expect the numbers to increase exponentially but ZIMSTAT has other plans.”

He further said: “Instead you have vast tracts of rural land in Mashonaland provinces being said to have thousands of people. On physical inspection, those areas are deserted. Something fishy is going on at ZIMSTAT concerning these figures. Bulawayo should not read much into these discriminatory figures. Instead, Bulawayo City Council should do its own parallel census which should guide the city in its planning. All things being equal this should not be a challenge.”

Effie Ncube, another political analyst said the census results require an independent commission of inquiry.

“There is something fundamentally wrong here,” said Ncube.

“Something is not adding up. I do not and will never trust these figures. They are part and parcel of a 42-year-old agenda to politically and economically marginalise Matabeleland. Either the method ZIMSTAT is using to count people is fundamentally and irredeemably flawed or these figures are deliberately fraudulent. Either way, they must not be trusted.”

“I do not trust election figures coming from government agencies and I cannot suddenly trust the census statistics from the same,” said Ncube.

“The figures are cooked by the same people. Don’t forget the census has implications for delimitation. As such it is a part of the electoral process. Elections can be rigged even through a census and I believe we are seeing this at work. The electoral outcome is already being cooked through ZIMSTAT.”

He added: “From a budgetary standpoint the census results mean even far less resources than before are going to be directed at developing Matabeleland. As a consequence of this, Matabeleland will continue to have the highest levels of poverty, hunger, and unemployment.”

Ncube said it was difficult to trust any figures coming out of any government agency.

Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association (BPRA) secretary for administration, Thembelani Dube said the figures raised more questions than answers.

“The figures may not be a true reflection of the overall population of Bulawayo if we factor in issues of international outward migration as well as the internal migration dynamics,” said Dube.

“A plethora of reasons may be attributed to the figures released. First is the issue of emigration to the neighbouring countries due to geographical proximity giving false impressions that the population of Bulawayo is remaining almost stagnant. Secondly, there may be some grey areas left regarding the census process, including but not limited to, some households not being enumerated and the issue of misrepresentation of facts by respondents and finally the issue of low fertility rates synonymous with the people of our region, Matabeleland.”

Dube said it was important for ZIMSTAT findings to be triangulated in order to minimise its limitations.

“In any research or fact-finding process, triangulation is key, especially if it concerns figures which have a bearing regarding equitable distribution of resources,” he said. “No process is hundred per cent correct. It’s important to have other bodies using their own process to conduct their processes that will be used to cement the findings, and if need be, to highlight the shortcomings of the ZIMSTAT counting and compiling of population data processes.”

But are the census and voter figures for Matabeleland really manipulated and do stakeholders’ concerns hold water?

ZIMSTAT spokesperson, Mercy Chidemo, said she was not in a position to say whether or not the concerns of the people of Matabeleland hold water, adding “because I don’t know where their concerns are emanating from.”

“We reported what was exactly on the ground as of 20th April 2022,” she told CITE. “We collect statistics as they are and we do not get into the analysis. We answer the question of what we saw and not the how and why parts of a question.”

Chidemo added: “Analysts including demographers and academics can provide answers as to how and why there is a low population in those areas.”

On the other hand, ZEC spokesperson, Jasper Mangwana, said there was no way the commission could have suppressed the figures for Matabeleland’s registered voters.

“What we can say is that as a commission we have been doing voter registration across the country in all the constituencies and we had a roadmap on which areas we were going to do a voter registration blitz which included all the 210 constituencies of the country and we deployed similar teams,” he said.

“We also deployed voter educators in those areas. There is no way where we look at provinces or places differently because we believe they all carry the same weight.”

Mangwana said there was a correlation between the population census and registered voter figures, adding they were awaiting the final ZIMSTAT report as one of the guidelines in the delimitation of constituencies and electoral boundaries.

“As a commission, we want to encourage the public to get to our voter registration centres especially those in rural communities if they require our assistance and register to vote,” he added.

Zimbabwe Elections Support Network (ZESN) Matabeleland regional officer, Ndodana Ndlovu, is of the view that some arguments on the number of registered voters are not backed by scientific evidence.

“Yes, the people in Bulawayo could be one million or so, but I always think that Bulawayo as a metropolitan province, its population is very fluid plus most of the people who might be coming here, they are coming here for business and they are registered wherever they are coming from Mutare, Manicaland, Mashonaland Central,” said Ndlovu.

“So, looking by the eye to say we are many here, why registered voters are so few may not be scientific according to me. The census will give us the number of people who are 18 and above and who are eligible to vote in a particular area.”

He added: “People are no longer interested in issues of elections, issues of governance because they think it actually does not bring any change that they desire. They are just reluctant to go and register.”

Khumbulani Maphosa, Matabeleland Institute for Human Rights (MIHR) coordinator said the concerns from the region were valid and water-tight.

“It has been observed globally that undemocratic states use census statistics to marginalise and discriminate ethnic, linguistic, religious, and indigenous minorities, especially on national resource allocations,” argued Maphosa.

“Matabeleland is home to a variety of ethnic, linguistic, and indigenous minorities who have been marginalised and underdeveloped over years, and the reason has mainly been said to be due to low numbers. It is therefore for that reason that people of Matabeleland feel that the census is being used to further exacerbate their marginalisation and underdevelopment.”

He said people were arguing this from general observation.

“For instance, if you check around in your family or neighbourhood, how many people have been born versus those that have died since the last Census in 2012?” he said. “In most cases, the born are more than the dead. It is, therefore, that logical observation that makes people query the census statistics.”

Maphosa believes had ZIMSTAT also given statistics of those outside the country, queries could have been fewer.

“Currently it is believed that most people of Matabeleland are outside the country,” said Maphosa.

“The census questionnaire was asking us about the statistics of those who are outside the country but the preliminary results don’t show how many people per ward are outside. If the census results showed the figures of those outside the country, it would have given clearer and more detailed statistics.”

He further said: “As Matabeleland Institute for Human Rights (MIHR) we wrote to ZIMSTAT asking them about the migration statistics and they haven’t responded. We implore them to make public the migration statistics and we also implore the people of Matabeleland to continue non-violently demanding their rights.”

Maphosa said migration to neighbouring countries due to economic and political causes and generally very small family sizes due to cultural and social concerns could be contributing factors to Matabeleland’s low population and registered voter figures.

He also attributed the low number of registered voters to disillusionment with the governance, and leadership that has in the past represented the region.

“The political leadership of the region has not been effective in speaking out for people’s rights and development priorities,” he said.

“People in the region feel like they have been ‘sold-out’ by their own leaders.”

Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) principal researcher Bekezela Gumbo, also said the concerns of Matabeleland are genuine, “although I cannot 100% agree that the small registered population is wholly due to manipulation.”

“Apart from the manipulation alleged, the region is hardest hit by emigration,” he said.

“In one homestead you find that 60% membership or more emigrated. In addition, the remainder is engulfed in the chase for money outside their voting boundaries. In addition, most youths are migrating to the illegal mining bushes and that must reflect in the voter registration.”

Professor Marvellous Mhloyi, the founder of the Demography Teaching and Department of Population Studies at the University of Zimbabwe, has on the other hand said Matabeleland would need an estimated 350 years to double its population, which has been on a slow growth rate mainly due to low fertility rate, cultural practices and migration, among a number of factors.

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