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strike shows up ZCTU shortcomings
Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)
By Joseph Sithole in Harare (AR No. 107, 5-Apr-07)
April 05, 2007
of Zimbabwe had every reason to feel pleased with the outcome of
a poorly planned two-day general strike on April 3 and 4.
action had been called by the Zimbabwe
Congress of Trade Unions, ZCTU, to press demands for free anti-retroviral
drugs, higher pay, and a reversal of the economic slide blamed on
President Robert Mugabe’s damaging policies.
But by all accounts
the "stayaway" was a flop, despite backing from the South
African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade
Unions, which called on the Zimbabwe government to respect workers’
rights and allow them to stage the protest.
claimed it failed because people heeded its call to ignore what
it characterised as a politically-motivated event instigated by
the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, in pursuit of
But the reason
for the failure lay elsewhere.
Two previous strikes
organised by the ZCTU were more successful because they had definite
aims and people were told what to do.
The most successful
was in 1998, just before the formation of the MDC the following
year. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was then the secretary-general
of the ZCTU.
had introduced a new tax to raise money to meet the demands of the
militant veterans of Zimbabwe’s independence war.
ZCTU led the protests
against the tax, arguing that Zimbabweans had already been impoverished
by the austerity measures forced on it under the International Monetary
Fund’s structural adjustment programme in 1991, which had led to
job losses and the closure of several companies.
Workers and unemployed
youths in urban areas went on the rampage for three days, attacking
shops and looting goods. The government was forced to reverse the
unpopular tax. Tsvangirai emerged as a hero, which helped him assume
the presidency of the MDC when the trade union movement transformed
itself into a political party in September the following year.
the MDC took with it most of the leadership of the trade union movement,
which weakened ZCTU. It also created an unhealthy umbilical link
between the two as far as government was concerned. That relationship
is responsible for the government’s current hostile attitude towards
the labour body and for the ZCTU’s apparent ineffectiveness.
By 2001, it had
become clear that Mugabe’s chaotic land reform programme, launched
a year earlier, was a monumental failure. The trade union movement
led protests against soaring bread and food prices, bringing business
to a standstill in most urban centres. The government responded
with brutal reprisals, beatings and arrested a number of ZCTU officials
who were accused of masterminding the looting and destruction of
year, Mugabe signed into law the repressive Public
Order and Security Act, Posa, according to which police must
authorise every gathering of more than three people. And a year
later, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa grimly boasted that government
would use Posa as an instrument with which to beat the MDC. Since
2001, any calls for industrial action have been muddled. The one
this week was no different.
IWPR that part of the problem was a failure to define and explain
what a stayaway meant. One commentator gave an example last September
when the ZCTU wanted to stage a protest against the mismanagement
of the Harare municipality by a commission appointed by government.
It was not clear what people were expected to do - protest in the
streets or simply stay at home.
The ZCTU leaders
who gathered at the council Town House on that occasion were brutally
attacked in police custody – in a prelude to what happened to MDC
leaders on March 11 this year, when several, including Tshvangirai,
were arrested on their way to a prayer rally and beaten badly while
The ZCTU’s organisational
limitations have been complicated by its link to the MDC. The government
views the MDC as a front for western interests, and so has adopted
a hostile attitude towards the labour movement. This has led to
the widespread intimidation of those who might want to participate
in industrial action.
connection between the ZCTU and the MDC has become its Achilles
heel," said a political analyst in Harare. "So far as
government is concerned, the ZCTU cannot have a workers’ agenda
that does not have political connotations.
of the police each time there is a hint of a stayaway tells you
everything about what government thinks of them. It does not help
matters that senior members of the MDC still hold high posts in
The ZCTU's influence
has also been weakened by the emergence of splinter groups, some
of them instigated by government. The analyst referred to the Zimbabwe
Federation of Trade Unions, ZFTU, which has close links to the ruling
Each time the
ZCTU calls for mass action, the ZFTU comes out in the state media
attacking it as an imperialist plot against the government. There
are also associations linked to industrial and municipal workers
which have opposed the ZCTU, thus diluting its representative character.
The ZCTU has been
gravely weakened by diminishing membership resulting from Zimbabwe’s
calamitous economic collapse. Many companies have shut down, factories
are operating at 30 per cent of capacity while thousands of workers
have been laid off since the early 1990s.
A political science
lecturer at a local university said this week’s stayaway was doomed
from the start. "When you ask people to stay away it is hard
to tell the level of their response in a country where unemployment
is close to 80 per cent," he said. "What we saw during
the two days of the stayaway this week was a competition for visibility
between security agencies and people going about their normal business."
There was a heavy
presence in town, where shops, banks and government departments
were all open on the first day. By the second day the stayaway call
was virtually a distant memory. The normally noisy townships were
quiet except for isolated incidents ascribed by the state media
to unruly youths.
said this week’s stayaway failed because there was "no immediate
ZCTU had a core of grievances like low salaries, poor working conditions,
high food prices, bread shortages and high transport costs, there
was nothing to get people onto their feet," he said.
no immediate spark for people to heed the call to action. "Moreover,
the fact that all the people needed to do was to stay at home made
it such a dull affair."
is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.
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