Resistance, Crisis and Workers in Zimbabwe

ROAPE’s Leo Zeilig talks to Antonater Tafadzwa Choto about the ongoing economic crisis in Zimbabwe, the impact on ordinary people, and some of the factors that are likely to worsen or mitigate the crisis in forthcoming years. Choto is a well-known labour activist, researcher and currently director of the Zimbabwe Labour Centre.

Can you please give us a few details about the history of your own activism?

I have worked for years as a social justice activist after having participated in a number of workers and social justice struggles from the mid-1990s. Initially I was involved in a feminist group that campaigned against discrimination against women, with women harassed and attacked. Later I became a socialist active in the labour struggles of the 1990s. I am currently the director of the Zimbabwe Labour Centre. The ZLC stands for the justice for working people in the work place and society at large. We also campaign against neo-liberal policies that, we believe, have had a disastrous impact on Zimbabwe. 

Zimbabwe has now been in a prolonged and terrible crisis for more than a decade, can you explain what is going on and what life is like in the country at the moment?

One story seems to represent the general picture, to me. On his birthday interview in February 2016 the President, Robert Mugabe, announced that the country had lost US$15 billion revenue from the mining of diamonds mines in Marange diamond fields in Chiadzwa.  US$15 billion was supposed to be channelled to the treasury to help the ailing economy but was lost through corruption. Mugabe admitted this publically. Mugabe then announced that the government was taking over the mining of diamonds in Marange. Sounds positive, right? Sadly not. While he made this announcement, he said nothing about efforts to recover money that could go a long way to helping the country and the majority of ordinary people in poverty.  Instead of bringing the culprits before the justice system he stated that the government would seek to lure other foreign investors, who will come, no doubt, to loot more money from the diamond fields. 

At the same time his Minister of Finance Patrick Chinamasa and Reserve Bank Governor John Mangudya were delighted to announce that the IMF would grant Zimbabwe a loan, the 1st in 20 years, of $984 million in the 3rd quarter of the year after paying off foreign lenders. This is not good news for Zimbabwe. IMF money will see more austerity and worsening of life for ordinary people in Zimbabwe.  In many ways the current collapse in the economy, with its long political crisis, was triggered by the conditions attached to such loans – known across the continent – as structural adjustment, in the 1990s. There is little different in these new loans. Why does the government not focus on bringing back US$15 billion of stolen assets from the Marange diamond fields? 

The reasons are complex, but essentially the government refuses, for all of its black empowerment bombast, to make any serious efforts at controlling the countries riches for itself. Zimbabwe is endowed with vast mineral wealth with only a minority, approximately 1% enjoying access to enormous wealth, in kick-backs from deals with multinational corporations. At the same time more than 90% of the population struggle to afford to send their children to school, while young girls are often forced into prostitution or early marriages and boys turn to petty stealing or drugs. The gap between the poor and the rich continues to widen. Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, has always been a city of extremes, but never more so than today. The mansions the rich build for themselves, match the opulence of Constantia in Cape Town, while holidaying all over the world, and sending their children to top universities in Europe and America. Even South African universities, long the preferred destination for the children of the black elite, is no longer deemed adequate.

The ruling party ZANU-PF is incredibly divided, with a recent split and a new party created. The opposition too has split, again and again. Can you explain to us what the significance of these developments is?

Divisions among the elite have been incredibly unpleasant. The cake for the 1% has been shrinking for a number of years because of the global economic crisis, the slow-down in the Chinese economy, and the collapse of the rand in South Africa. Each of these factors have had a negative effect on the ailing country. The political game in Zimbabwe depends on these economies for their pay-outs. The elite both in Zanu-PF and the opposition are now greedily fighting amongst themselves, while dividing ordinary people who are forced to fight for the crumbs.  With Joice Mujuru, the former Vice-President expelled from Zanu-PF in 2014, the purge in the ruling party has not abated. Next in line could see Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had previously been seen as a replacement for Robert Mugabe.  

Mujuru was joined by others who had also suffered the purge in Zanu-PF, to form a political party People First (PF) – which is essentially no different from Zanu-PF, though perhaps more intensely committed to neoliberal policies, so pitching itself to the right of Zanu-PF. The Mnangagwa faction dubbed ‘Lacoste’ – for the emblem worn on supporters’ tee-shirts – seems to be losing the succession battle to the G40 (Generation 40). G40 consists mainly of young and energetic Zanu-PF members, who did not fight in the liberation struggle and are pushing for Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife, to succeed her husband even though Grace continuously refutes her presidential ambitions. Jonathan Moyo, Saviour Kasukuwere and Robert Zhuwavo are the leaders of G40 and are currently mobilising for a ‘1 million men match’ in support of Mugabe who is under pressure to step down due to his advanced age in May.

The diverse opposition is suffering from a similar crisis. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is little better than the ruling party, as it is also marred by factionalism, between the current President of the party, Morgan Tsvangirai, and the former party youth leader, Nelson Chamisa, who lost his position as spokes-person at the party’s last congress.  Since the MDC’s formation in 1999 it has seen numerous splits, for example, MDC-N led by Welchman Ncube, [and] the disbanded MDC-99 [led] by Job Sikhala, a former student activist, who returned to the party fold in 2014. [While] Tendai Biti, the former MDC finance minister in the Government of National Unity, became the secretary-general of MDC-Renewal in 2015. In September that year MDC-Renewal launched as a distinct party, the People’s Democratic Party, with Biti elected president of the new party. The MDC is in total disarray. Essentially these parties, recycling politicians and elites, compete to promote neo-liberal policies with similarly anti-worker austerity policies. This is all the more astonishing if you consider the fact that many of these figures, Biti, Sikhala, Chamisa, emerged from a radical socialist politics in the 1990s.

For an example of the neoliberal venality, the MDC-T which is running the city council of Harare has targeted vendors who try to make a living hawking juice cards (telephone recharge cards), fruit and vegetables, [and] cheap imported goods, [and] called for more powers to be given to city police to prosecute the vendors.  Early this year we saw the council demolishing the houses of the poor, yet the council has not build a single house for more than 20 years now. 

Zimbabwe’s trade union movement, its impressive working class activism in the 1990s, helped to found the main opposition party in 1999. Can you tell ROAPE something about the state of workers and trade unions in the country today and how the organised representation of workers has been weakened?

For more than a decade the country has been in crisis, workers and the poor, have paid the price for the crisis created by the government and rich. Figures are hard to come by, but roughly seventy percent of organised workers – in a relatively large and developed working class – has been retrenched since 1998. The working class, in cities and towns, around Zimbabwe has been literally declassed, tens of thousands moving to South Africa, or forced into the informal sector. So the neo-liberal policies adopted by the government from the 1990s has seen thousands of workers losing their jobs through retrenchments.  This has had a dramatic impact, weakening organised labour.  Unions have not only lost their membership through retrenchments, but those workers who have maintained their positions have sought to distance themselves from any radical fightback fearing for their jobs. Unemployment, as we know, is a massive disincentive for strike action. This was made worse by the Nyamange vs  Zuva Petroleum ruling on 17 July 2015 that upheld common law, stating an employer could terminate an employee’s contract by giving three months’ notice.  The ruling immediately saw more than 30,000 workers laid off, by being given three months’ notice.  Remaining workers have either been put on casual contracts or silenced to protect their jobs. The result for the organised, working class has been devastating.

Not only have the unions been weakened by low membership but also through their relationship to companies as they seek to survive. Most of the union’s financial subscriptions have collapsed making it difficult for them to operate and at times receiving their union’s dues from the company late, or depending on contributions from NGOs.  This has created a situation with the union bureaucracy ‘compromising’ with bosses, and being bought off by ’donations’ at the expense of their membership.

In some cases the situation is appalling. Not only are the union leaders being increasingly incorporated, or more crudely simply bought-off, but some seek to compete with chief executives of companies, living similarly luxury lifestyles, driving cars donated to them by the company, and drinking and dining at the same bars and restaurants.  Thus many of them have become buddies with managers, further compromising workers’ rights.  Frequently we see union leaders urging workers to accept short-term contracts and salary cuts or face unemployment. 

This has … also made worse splits in the trade union movement with numerous splinter unions being formed.  The petty, personal differences and disputes among trade union leaders with competing trade union federations, unable to unite. Last year, for example, after the Zuva ruling, which dealt a considerable advantage to company bosses to continue their attacks on the working class, the trade union movement failed to mount any serious or sustained action.

It is important to recall that the trade union movement, under pressure from a powerful rank and file, was at the heart of every serious political challenge to the regime for more than twenty years after independence in 1980. The current situation, viewed historically, is all the more devastating.  

As the economic meltdown has rippled across Zimbabwe, can you explain how this has impacted on women?

As usual the most affected by these interlinking crises are women. Women were the majority of workers in Zimbabwe employed in the retail sector, where many still work.  In the middle of this crisis women have been targeted, with the gains that working women made in the 1980’s and 1990’s being almost entirely eroded.

Most women no longer enjoy maternity leave with many forced to take unpaid leave for a month, compelled to return to work before they have recovered from giving birth, with childcare provision completely absent.  They are then forced to work normal hours, with no provisions for breastfeeding etc.  Wanting to protect their jobs most women feel compelled to accept these circumstances, since any position is preferable to staying at home with no income. 

Sexism, sexual harassment and discrimination, have long been a problem in Zimbabwe. But in recent years, levels of sexual harassment have increased dramatically, but again it is hard to assess exactly the extent of this increase as cases are not reported because of fear of reprisals. We have dealt with a significant increase in cases of sexual harassment at the Zimbabwe Labour Centre.

The threat of job losses casts a long, dark shadow across all aspects of Zimbabwe – but, perhaps, most worryingly on the position of women in society. So it has been made to look fashionable for a woman to have an affair with her boss, showered with gifts and special treatment at work, only to be dumped in favour of another woman. Again this is increasingly common.

As the crisis continues to worsen with firms cutting jobs at companies like the mobile phone giant Econet, the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) etc., the only way out for many young and single mothers is to accept sexual advances from the supervisor and managers. Such scandals that have been exposed show how bosses, for example, at the state National Social Security Authority (NSSA), received loans from the pension scheme for their girlfriends with no action taken to recover the public money.  All this does is to encourage the oppression of women in workplaces around the country.

Can you talk about the state of rank and file action in Zimbabwe? What sort of opposition is emerging in the recent strikes and actions that have taken place?

Despite the attacks we have seen, and the corruption of certain union leaders, workers are beginning to organise themselves independently. Over 300 hundred workers in 2015 from the parastatal, the Grain Marketing Board, spent more than a month sleeping outside their company premises in the middle of the rainy season to demand the payment of salary arrears dating back to 2014. These workers received solidarity from fellow unions and progressive civil society organisations like the International Socialist Organisation, the Zimbabwe Labour Centre, and many individuals in Zimbabwe and elsewhere on the continent. They partially won and only left the companies premises after agreeing to a deal to be paid US$350 per month, until all their salaries arears were repaid. They threatened to return should the employer default. 

Inspired by the example of GMB workers, National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) workers in March this year also occupied the company premises to highlight that they do not have anywhere to live, as they have not been paid for 15 months.  Their strike continues. Nurses from Mutare, a city in the east of Zimbabwe, also staged a sit-in at council offices in February this year, demanding their salary arears be paid. Frequently, such militant and often unorganised action is the only language left for workers. 

Finally, for the radical left, what are the strategies and possibilities for a progressive and socialist politics in Zimbabwe?

As the crisis continues to worsen in Zimbabwe the divisions – you could say the cannibalism – in the ruling elite will deepen as they fight amongst each other for their own survival.  These divisions and factionalism is a struggle over the control of a frail and broken economy, with a divided comprador elite involved in a vicious battle over the country’s puny spoils. The struggle for socialists is to ensure that the working class, women and the poor do not become involved in these battles.  These forces must resist the temptations of political parties, new and old, who are calling for further austerity against the poor.  The MDC, when it was part of the Government of National Unity, from 2009 to elections in 2013, and its current economic policies offer little for Zimbabwe’s poor.  The recent rank and file action we have seen gives an example of how unions can be strengthened, but corrupt union leaders must be replaced by those committed to advancing their members rights.  There is much to be done.

For more on the issues discussed by Choto see the website of the Zimbabwe Labour Centre and articles on Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis in ROAPE’s archive.



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