Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

MDC-led Strike Misfires

Calls for a general strike to unblock Zimbabwe’s political crisis have been largely ignored.
By Nonthando Bhebhe
A nationwide strike called by the Zimbabwean opposition in an attempt to pressure the authorities into releasing the result of the presidential election has failed to take off, as fears of a crackdown add to the general sense of disillusionment.

The Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, called the “stayaway” strike on April 14, after losing a High Court bid to force the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, ZEC, to announce how people voted in the March 29 presidential election.

The main MDC faction insists its leader Morgan Tsvangirai won an absolute majority, while President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party insists a second round will be needed.

In what looks like its latest stalling tactic, the ZEC has announced a recount in 23 constituencies for the presidential, parliamentary and local elections held on March 29. There are fears this could result in Mugabe being declared the winner, and also reverse the MDC’s victory in the parliamentary poll.

The general strike was intended to continue until the ZEC released a result, but as it was supposed to be closing the country down on April 15, most people ignored calls to stay at home. Shops, banks and offices remained open in central Harare. A few shops opened an hour late, as owners waited to see whether there was going to be trouble.

Police were deployed throughout the country to quash any possible outbreaks of violence. Riot squads of eight to 12 officers patrolled the streets.

The visible police presence may have discouraged many Zimbabweans from joining the industrial action, but poverty, lack of publicity, and disappointment in the MDC have also played a role.

Most adult Zimbabweans belong to the 85 per cent of people not in formal employment. Some of those who do have jobs told IWPR they could not afford to lose a day’s pay if they stayed at home.

Zimbabweans have endured steep economic decline and a steady erosion of political freedom in the past eight years, and many appear to have given up – or at least to be reluctant to risk their necks for an opposition which has failed to live up to the euphoria that surrounded its birth in 1999.

When the MDC first emerged on the political scene, there were high hopes that its leader Tsvangirai would prove to be President Mugabe's nemesis. However, the president has survived the MDC’s numerous attempts to use demonstrations and stayaways to pressure him.

John Mavudzi, a trader in the informal sector in the Harare, said he could not risk being arrested, beaten up or even killed in pursuit of an election result.

“I have a family to feed. I make my money from deals in town and if I stay at home my children will starve. I just can’t afford to stay away. Maybe those in formal employment could have participated,” he said..

“I would not want to be caught up in any violence, and I believe the worst thing is to get hurt and thereafter not be able to fend for my children. That is a sacrifice I cannot afford.”

A freelance journalist who asked to remain anonymous said the MDC was wrong to call a strike as this merely played into the hands of Mugabe, who he said had been yearning for a violent confrontation so that he could declare a state of emergency.

“This was a grave mistake by MDC. Let us just hope that people will not be baited into violence,” said the journalist. “Previous demonstrations called by the opposition have resulted in a low turnout as the few people still in work did not want to risk a day's wage.

Past strikes and demonstrations have been met by teargas, beatings, and the closure of businesses that dared join the strike.

Some Harare residents have questioned why MDC leaders called for a strike while they themselves were outside the country.

Tsvangirai and his party secretary general Tendai Biti are in South Africa.

Biti was quoted by CNN television as saying he feared there could be a "Rwanda-size massacre" unless the international community intervened.

He said that the lack of international action so far had been embarrassing, and announced that the MDC would be sending a delegation to urge the United Nations to step in.

Nonthando Bhebhe is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe.

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