May 26, 2006

Harare promises bloodshed if workers go on strike

by Terry Bell
A major strike is looming in Zimbabwe, and the government has reportedly put its security forces on high alert, promising "bloodshed" if it proceeds.

Yet proceed it probably will because the workers involved have virtually nothing to lose. They'll probably fight rather than starve on their knees.

A conflict of this kind could have severe repercussions, not only for Zimbabwe, but for South Africa and the region.

The strike call comes from the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers' Union (Gapwuz) and has the backing of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). The initial announcement came at the ZCTU's sixth congress, held in Harare two weeks ago.

This was the congress from which invited international guests, including Cosatu officials and trade unionists from Norway, the Netherlands and Swaziland were banned by the government from attending. Most of these guests, including Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, were turned away at Harare airport, but at least two were bundled out of their hotel rooms and put on flights out of the country.

According to several delegates, the government did not intend that the ZCTU should table, let alone pass, any strike resolution.

The congress was instead supposed to provide an opportunity for pro-government union members to unseat the leadership and have the ZCTU steered back into the camp of the ruling Zanu-PF.

"The government has been determined for years either to take over the trade union movement or to smash it,'" says ZCTU president Lovemore Matombo.

His assessment is supported by political scientist and commentator John Makumbe, who fears that the government intends to "neutralise all dissenting voices and close down the remaining democratic space in Zimbabwe".

This space, in many ways, is occupied by the trade unions.

To many trade unionists, it must seem incredible that anyone could have believed that the ZCTU, which in 1999 facilitated the formation of the major political opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, could be swung into support for the government. But this was apparently believed, certainly by Zanu-PF supporters in the unions.

Several had remained in the ZCTU and others rejoined after the failure of a state-sponsored initiative to form a pro-government union federation. They apparently pledged to unseat the existing ZCTU leadership and bring the unions back into the Zanu-PF fold.

They failed. Dismally. Matombo remains as ZCTU president with Wellington Chibebe as general secretary.

The congress went on to hear an impassioned plea for support from Gapwuz general secretary Gertrude Hambira. She highlights the deplorable conditions under which most workers laboured, usually for "new farmers", many of them members of the ruling elite.

She notes that some workers are not even paid the stipulated farm work wage of Z$1.3 million (R84) a month at a time when the generally accepted poverty level wage is set at Z$42 million (R2 725).

With year-on-year inflation above 1 000 percent and the price of a loaf of bread scheduled to increase to Z$200 000 (R13), farm workers are literally facing starvation. "They cannot send their children to school; they are living like scavengers on these run-down farms," she says.

These are among the facts that Matombo and Chibebe want to raise at the annual international meetings of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva, which start next Wednesday. However, there are indications that the government intends to refuse permission for the ZCTU delegation to leave Zimbabwe.

Labour minister Nicholas Goche says he was studying a report about alleged corruption and maladministration in the ZCTU. The report follows complaints lodged with the minister last year by a group of unionists known to be loyal to the government.

For Matombo it looks like history repeating itself. "The government is recycling itself 360 degrees," he says, referring to the arrest of ZCTU leaders in 1987. At the time, the government, furious at ZCTU objections to a one-party state, appointed an official commission to run trade union affairs.

The unions survived that attack and a series of subsequent arrests and cases of harassment. "And we will continue to survive," says Matombo, who is convinced the government will not bar him and Chibebe from attending the ILO meetings.

"It would look even worse for them if they did try to stop us," he says. But whatever happens, the labour movement "has plans in place".

Some of the plans relate to strike action, which is tentatively scheduled to get under way later this month, and after the ILO meetings.

On the face of it, what happens in Geneva over the next two weeks could have a more profound effect on Zimbabwe than any possible intervention by the UN's secretary-general, Kofi Annan.


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