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Failed Strike Shows Up ZCTU Shortcomings

Government claimed people heeded its call to ignore the general strike, but the reason for its failure lay elsewhere.
By Joseph Sithole
The government of Zimbabwe had every reason to feel pleased with the outcome of a poorly planned two-day general strike on April 3 and 4.



The industrial 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.



The government 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 regime change.



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.



The government 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.



Unfortunately, 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 property.



The following 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.



Analysts told 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 in detention.



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.



“The close 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.



“The deployment 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.”



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 Zanu-PF party.



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.



Another analyst said this week’s stayaway failed because there was “no immediate spark”.



“While the 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.



“There was 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.”



Joseph Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.







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