JOHANNESBURG If Zimbabwe's election this week delivers a win for the party he supports, Gilbert Zondo could be back home by the end of the year, reviving the teaching career he abandoned five years ago to live in precarious exile in South Africa.
"It would be nice to stand in a classroom again and do the job I was trained for," Zondo, from Bulawayo and in his 40s, said in downtown Johannesburg at the weekend as he sat in a bus loading passengers for a trip to Zimbabwe's second city.
Several million Zimbabweans left their country in the decade before 2009, fleeing political turmoil and an economic meltdown that slashed real wages. Many say they went abroad to escape persecution by President Robert Mugabe's dominant ZANU-PF party, which critics accuse of using intimidation to stay in power.
Zondo is among a trickle of Zimbabweans heading back to vote in Wednesday's election, when 89-year-old Mugabe will bid to extend his 33 years in power in a closely-watched vote.
Mugabe's opponents and Western and African governments have expressed concern that he has rushed the vote to help his re-election and that it may not deliver a credible result.
Estimates vary as to how many Zimbabweans live abroad, but rights and migration groups put the number at anywhere between two and 3.5 million, most of them in South Africa and former colonial ruler Britain.
"I'm sure a few people in here are also going home to vote. This could be the final push we have waited for, and I'm hoping for a good outcome," Zondo said, gesturing at the seats filling up in the bus behind him.
A good outcome for Zondo would be victory for Mugabe's rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has spent the last four years in a fractious power-sharing government with ZANU-PF.
The unity government was formed under South African-led regional diplomatic pressure after a disputed 2008 election bloodied by widespread violence, including some 200 deaths, which the MDC blamed on ZANU-PF militants.
Reflecting the fear that still marks Zimbabwean politics, others on the bus with Zondo kept their electoral hopes to themselves. "Who knows what might happen to me once I get home?" said a shop assistant who has also worked as a waiter and construction worker in South Africa over the last eight years.
Zimbabwe's electoral laws forbid postal votes except for those serving outside the country on diplomatic service.
This means that most in the diaspora will be forced to watch from the sidelines.
Many exiles can ill afford the fare home - a low-budget return bus trip to Harare costs about 1,000 rand ($100). They would rather save the money for their annual Christmas visit.
"I WANT TO GO HOME"
If Zimbabweans could vote from abroad, it is likely their choice would largely favor the MDC. Disappointed supporters have left Zimbabwe in droves as their party, formed in 1999, failed to end Mugabe's rule in successive polls clouded by allegations of ZANU-PF vote rigging and intimidation.
Mugabe, who has governed since 1980 when his ZANU-PF party won independence elections after fighting a guerrilla war to end white minority rule in then Rhodesia, denies rigging the votes.
He blames Zimbabwe's economic woes on Western sanctions imposed after controversial seizures of white-owned commercial farms from 2000. He also has little sympathy for the exiles.
"You have your country; you fought for it, why are you running away? Why run to Britain, a very cold and uninhabitable country?" Mugabe mocked at a campaign rally last week.
Albert Zinhanga, a 35-year-old teacher and MDC activist based in Cape Town, where he has lived for six years with his wife and child, is defiant at Mugabe's jibes and says he is ready to go back and cast his vote to push the president out.
"Mugabe is scared of the people who are here because that number alone can take him out of State House," he told Reuters.
"I don't want to be stuck here in South Africa forever. I want to go back home, to have my normal life," Zinhanga said.
For most Zimbabweans in South Africa, life in exile still a far better option than at home, although many are stuck in minimum wage jobs. They can also face resentment and hostility from South Africans, which erupted into xenophobic attacks on other African migrants in 2008. More than 60 people were killed.
Not all Zimbabweans abroad are champing at the bit to make their vote count.
"Zimbabwe will always be the country of my birth, and of course I'll be following the election news on television," said accountant Vimbai Shoko, who has built a new life for herself in the South African capital Pretoria.
"But whoever wins, my life is here now and I'm staying put. This is now home," she said.
($1 = 9.8080 South African rand)
(Additional reporting by Wendell Roelf in Cape Town; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Paul Taylor)