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ZCTU National Labour Protest - Sept 13, 2006 - Index of articles
democracy, no bread and butter
September 21, 2006
Discontent is bitter but there's not
the unity to harness it
THE protest was stamped upon before
it could even begin. Last week, members of the Zimbabwean
Congress of Trade Unions tried to organise marches
in the main towns. They had a lot to protest about. Food, fuel
and other essentials are in painfully short supply (shops in Harare,
the capital, are even running out of bread). Power cuts are routine,
three-quarters of the population have no job, inflation is at 1,200%-the
highest rate on the planet. The economy shrank by nearly half in
the six years to 2005, and most people now rely on remittances from
some of the 3m-4m Zimbabweans living abroad.
Some union leaders were arrested as
they gathered for the march and others were chased off by the riot
police. Officials claimed that the trade unions were pursuing a
political agenda. But the would-be marchers wanted to complain about
the lack of bread and butter, rather than the flattening of democracy.
The unions want a higher minimum wage, AIDS treatment for the poor,
lower taxes, and for officials to stop harassing informal traders.
The poverty line-what is reckoned to
be the bare minimum to keep a family of six alive for a month-stands
at Z$96,000 ($384 officially, much less by black-market rates).
But the unions say that the average monthly salary is less than
a quarter of that, barely enough to pay for a decent pair of shoes.
One adult in five may be infected with HIV, and AIDS is thought
to kill nearly 500 people every day. Drugs could have saved many
of them, but there is almost no money for that. People with jobs
see 5% of their salaries deducted, supposedly to finance a national
AIDS programme. Yet getting treated in government clinics is difficult,
and patients must pay Z$3,000 for a monthly course of pills. Private
treatment is much more costly.
In the past, many Zimbabweans made
ends meet by trading informally: women offered small piles of tomatoes
or jars of honey from the roadside; men sold flecks of gold scraped
from river-beds; hawkers packed the streets of Harare. But the government's
urban demolition drive last year destroyed the homes and businesses
of some 700,000 people. Traders are now told to use government stalls,
but few have been built and only members of President Robert Mugabe's
party get places. Those trying to sell wares outside official markets
are arrested and their products grabbed.
There is no resolution in sight. Clearing
up the economy depends on sorting out the politics, and that depends
on Mr Mugabe leaving office. He shows absolutely no sign of doing
so. The police, the army and the ruling party are growing stronger,
at the expense of such state institutions as parliament and the
courts. Some observers believe that the situation is so bad it could
So it could, but continued years of
quiet desperation seem more likely. The opposition-the Movement
for Democratic Change (MDC), the unions, the churches and civic
groups-have failed to unite in putting as much pressure on the government
as possible. They did get together in a "Save Zimbabwe" convention
in July, promising mass resistance, but nothing came of it. Though
other groups backed the unions' planned march, they made it clear
it was not a joint action. The MDC, itself split, said it would
watch with "keen interest" how the authorities reacted. Morgan Tsvangirai,
the party's founder, has been saying since March that mass action
is in the works, predicting a "winter of discontent". But Zimbabwe's
winter has passed, with much discontent, and little action.
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