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ZCTU National Labour Protest - Sept 13, 2006 - Index of articles
Warns Off Protesters
Kwangware in Harare, Institute for War and Peace Reporting (AR No.77,
September 27, 2006
of Wellington Chibebe, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe
Congress of Trade Unions, in a hospital bed with a fractured
arm, two broken fingers and a bandaged head are chilling testimony
to the ruthlessness of Robert Mugabe's security forces and the Zimbabwe
president's resolve to suppress any dissent against his rule.
In the wake
of the September
assaults on Chibebe and other top leaders of the trade union
organisation, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC,
now faces an uphill task to bring about its own promised mass protests
against the Mugabe government. People are more afraid than ever
to participate in public demonstrations, having witnessed the extent
of the injuries inflicted on the trade unionists.
Chibebe, 42, was so badly
injured at the notorious Matapi police station in the Harare suburb
of Mbare that he was unable to appear in court to answer charges
of inciting protesters. A hearing was instead held at the state
Parirenyatwa Hospital where Chibebe's extensive injuries are being
treated. The trade union chief was bailed to appear in court some
time in October.
Matapi police station
is well known among Zimbabweans as one of the Mugabe administration's
main torture centres. Its cells have been condemned by the country's
Supreme Court as "unfit for human habitation".
The ZCTU leaders were
detained and savagely beaten when they tried on September 13 to
lead lunchtime protests by workers against worsening economic hardships
and harsh political conditions.
Their protest ended before
it began when militiamen and riot police moved in to crush the demonstration
amid government threats to act mercilessly against any workers who
The failed protest was
just the latest of many fruitless efforts by the ZCTU and the MDC
to rally ordinary people against the increasing totalitarianism
of Mugabe and his ZANU PF government. Although Zimbabwe's economy
has collapsed, with the International Monetary Fund predicting inflation
will average 4,300 per cent next year and unemployment running at
80 per cent, there has been no significant public protest for more
than three years.
Although MDC leader Morgan
Tsvangirai endorsed the ZCTU's planned demonstration, he did not
join it, reinforcing popular perceptions that opposition politicians
want "to lead from the back" and reap the potential political
rewards of ordinary people's broken heads.
The ZCTU demonstration
was meant to conclude with the delivery of a petition to the government
demanding salary increases indexed to increases in minimum income
levels deemed necessary for family survival; free drugs for the
millions of people living with HIV/AIDS; the restoration of democratic
freedoms; and an end to crackdowns on informal street traders, most
of them people rendered jobless in a country with the world's fastest
Riot police sealed off
all routes into Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, quickly arrested more
than 180 people and dispersed tentative crowds by wading into them
with heavy wooden batons while firing teargas.
The 82-year-old Mugabe,
who has indicated he intends extending his reign to 2010, which
will mean he has been in office for thirty years, has declared war,
saying he will clamp down on opposition and attempted uprisings
by civil society.
He had warned that the
trade union demonstration would be "at the ZCTU's peril",
denouncing Chibebe's ultimately crushed protest as an attempt "to
create public disorder to achieve regime change". Mugabe -
in an echo of his notoriously proud declaration "We have degrees
in violence" - added, "We have armed men who can
pull the trigger."
A western diplomat who
witnessed the crushing of the ZCTU demonstration told The Times
of London, "It was carried out as a deliberate, premeditated
warning, from the highest level, to anyone else who tries mass protest
that this is what will happen to them."
Mugabe has warned Tsvangirai
that if he follows the ZCTU's example he will be "dicing with
death". The president, in Clint Eastwood style, added, "If
you want an excuse for being killed, be my guest. Go into the streets
Matchaba-Hove, of Zimbabwe
Doctors for Human Rights, who attended to the injured trade
unionists, said of the attacks, "As a case of police brutality
on a group, it is the worst I've ever seen. It was really
terrible and really brutal."
According to informal
poverty indexes, a family of five in Zimbabwe now needs more than
100,000 Zimbabwe dollars (400 US dollars) a month to buy basic commodities
but few earn anything near that figure. Most get less than a fifth
Despite their dire poverty,
the majority of people are too afraid to protest. Violence and intimidation
by Mugabe and the security forces has worked, as demonstrated by
the thin support for the ZCTU protesters.
Edward Chakanyuka, a
Harare worker, told IWPR that he decided he would never again participate
in an anti-government demonstration after he was beaten up by soldiers
seven years ago in Mabvuku, a Harare working class suburb. "I
can never erase memories of the way those soldiers hammered me,"
he said. "I still have nightmares. So I keep away from things
like mass demonstrations, mass action and boycotts.
"On the day of
the ZCTU demonstrations, I tried to take a day off work. I didn't
want to be anywhere near the city centre. I can tell you that the
element of fear is not exaggerated. We are afraid. With what happened
to the ZCTU guys, I can guarantee you that the MDC will not be able
to pull the huge crowds for its demonstration."
With the southern hemisphere
winter now over, the MDC, which promised a series of major demonstrations
through a "winter of discontent", has yet to announce
when Tsvangirai and other top brass will lead people on to the streets
to defy Mugabe. The party publicity secretary Nelson Chamisa said
mass protests are still scheduled, but he declined to say when.
With critics accusing
the MDC of mass dithering, Chamisa said, "We are not so naïve
and parochial as to fix a time and a rigid timetable for the people's
say that the protests would be held in winter. The winter being
referred to is what people would go through. It was a metaphorical
statement. The struggle has a timetable and we will be able to do
it at that time."
The MDC's secetary-general
Tendai Bitai said, "Mass protests are coming at our own pace.
People who criticise have never demonstrated, been tortured, harassed
or slept in a cell. These are armchair people who will say anything
and just criticise."
But a top MDC official,
requesting anonymity, told IWPR that some of her colleagues had
developed cold feet following the beatings of the ZCTU protesters.
They fear that the assaults would be even worse on the leaders of
the MDC, the only party since independence to have posed a serious
threat to ZANU PF hegemony.
"People are now
very scared," she said. "Mugabe has instilled fear not
only in ordinary Zimbabweans but also in the MDC leadership. Some
have second thoughts, and are already divided on, mass protests.
Those MDC activists arguing the need for sustained protest are seriously
worried they will not be able to mobilise the essential large crowds.
"There are whole
issues of fear and of heavy handedness of the state. With the future
of the country so precarious, people tend to protect their little
spaces and are becoming extra cautious about their safety and security."
The official said that
because Zimbabwe is now a de facto "politico-military junta"
a popular uprising like the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, or Kyrgystan's
Tulip Revolution or the Rose Revolution of Georgia simply cannot
"The numbers game
will not work here,"said the official. "Rather, a more
qualitative assessment of the effort against the odds should be
the right approach.
realise that there is going to be an eye of the storm, so action
will be incremental. Dynamite comes in small packages. People, inside
and outside the country, must not confuse caution with fear."
Kwangware is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.
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