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Unions stand firm against onslaught
Zwelinzima Vavi
May 03, 2007

The crisis in Zimbabwe has scaled new heights in recent weeks with the arrests, abductions, beatings, torture and murder of political and trade-union leaders and activists.

Last year, leaders of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) were so severely assaulted they could not address a Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) congress.

The government is ruthlessly trampling on human rights to try to crush the resistance of opposition parties, civil society organisations and trade unions.

Earlier this month, the ZCTU fought back with a national stayaway. Workers were protesting against both government attacks on human rights and the desperate poverty caused by the collapse of the economy.

Thousands survive on grain handouts and an estimated three million people, about 28% of the population, have fled to neighbouring countries looking for work. Many doctors, nurses, teachers and others with scarce skills do any menial job on offer in the region.

Liberation in Zimbabwe in 1980 inspired me and many others to redouble our efforts to defeat apartheid in South Africa. The wave of decolonialisation sweeping through Africa showed us the enemy could be beaten. Due to the historical ties between Zanu-PF and the South African liberation movement, Cosatu was instinctively biased towards Zanu, which defied the apartheid government.

Why did such a promising transformation fail? How did Zimbabwe shift from being the breadbasket to the basket case of the continent?

At first, there were significant improvements in the living conditions of the formerly oppressed. There was faster GDP growth and improvements in social services.

But the underlying social problems of poverty, unemployment and inequality remained, made even worse by the International Monetary Fund/World Bank-inspired economic structural adjustment programmes, which left the government without a coherent economic strategy. To this were added unfair terms of trade.

The government began to move away from redistributive economic policies towards measures to attract foreign investment. Spending on health, education and social services was cut. Privatisation and public-service downsizing led to massive retrenchments.

The government also failed to address the land question, which had always been at the core of the liberation struggle.

For 20 years, the government did nothing. Then it suddenly launched its chaotic land grabs, disregarding the law and unleashing a wave of violence.

The government also became increasingly heavy-handed, intolerant of dissent and political plurality. It ruthlessly repressed trade unions. Meetings and demonstrations have been banned. The ZCTU has nevertheless stood firm against the most intolerable attacks.

There are no quick-fix solutions for the country's economic, political and social woes, but the key to any solution has to be the broadest possible mass movement, led by the organised working class.

Cosatu has welcomed the recent shows of unity displayed by the two MDC factions. This is the only way to achieve change. The regime will not move in response to arguments and pleas, but can be forced to back down in the face of massive protests.

Cosatu is not calling for a regime change -- that's the business of Zimbabweans. Our support for the people is aimed at forcing Mugabe to engage directly with the ZCTU, business and civil society in a bid to open the road to democracy.

*Zwelinzima Vavi is general secretary of Cosatu

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