ZIMBABWE: Labour movement debates response to poll fraud

March 27, 2002


In the aftermath of the rigged March 9-10 presidential election, Zimbabwe's trade unions and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) have failed to lead serious mass mobilisations to block the return of the authoritarian capitalist regime of President Robert Mugabe.

The working-class and poor residents of Zimbabwe's cities and towns and rural trade union members bore the brunt of the undemocratic and violent tactics used by Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Union (ZANU-PF) before and during the poll.

ZANU-PF immediately intensified its repression following Mugabe's victory. As the national executive of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) met on March 14, police claimed it was a "political gathering" and prevented it going ahead.

Charges of high treason continue to be pursued against Morgan Tsvangirai and two other MDC leaders over a discredited claim that he has plotted to kill Mugabe. Tsvangirai will face court on April 30.

In contrast to Mugabe's continuing hostility towards the labour movement and opposition, his March 17 inauguration speech in Harare offered an olive branch to his erstwhile "imperialist" and capitalist enemies. With the election out of the way, Mugabe signalled that "stability" was important again.

Blinded by Mugabe's ritualistic reference to his poll win as "a stunning blow to imperialism" and his promise to speed up the government's land redistribution program, the Western press largely ignored the president's promises to restore local business confidence and to "stimulate national exports" and foreign investment.

"We are determined that fiscal control be a priority", Mugabe pledged.

The speech amounted to a commitment to resume the government's stalled Millennium Economic Recovery Program of privatisation, deregulation and austerity based on the prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The government's mouthpiece, the Herald, reported on March 21 that Zimbabwe's top capitalist associations — including the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) and Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), both dominated by white capitalists — met with Mugabe on March 20 to "congratulate him and indicate their willingness to work with the government in resuscitating the economy".

Business was "the first sector in the country to express its willingness to work with the government following ... the presidential election", the Herald gloated. Mugabe has long claimed the MDC is a front for the CZI and CFU.

The CFU was rewarded with assurances that rich farmers "willing to work with the government" will have their "security issues and all areas of concern" addressed. A government spokesperson said Mugabe assured business leaders that "he is for greater productivity on the farms" and for boosting production of "critical crops", signalling that the government's land redistribution program may soon be moderated.

Saving face

While Western governments have loudly claimed they are getting "tough" with Mugabe — by invoking token "smart sanctions" and demanding Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth — behind the scenes they have worked to find a compromise that allows both them and Mugabe to save face — and avoid a situation in which Zimbabwe's masses may take matters into their own hands.

With the quiet endorsement of London and Washington, presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria have been pressing Mugabe to form a government of national unity, with Tsvangirai's MDC as junior partner.

Such a government would not have to rerun the election. For the West, and their closest African allies Mbeki and Obasanjo, concern for democracy is just a convenient cover for their real goal: a return to compliance with neo-liberal economic policies and respect for private property.

While Tsvangirai in public says he prefers a "transitional" government that will prepare a new election, behind closed doors he is reported to have accepted Mbeki and Obasanjo's proposal. Mugabe has remained tight-lipped about the idea, although his ministers' comments have been generally negative.

Arguing that Mugabe and Tsvangirai were still considering joining forces, Mbeki, Obasanjo and Australian Prime Minister John Howard — the "troika" appointed by the Commonwealth to respond to the report of the Commonwealth's election monitors — on March 19 agreed to the largely symbolic penalty of suspending Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth's top councils for one year. No economic or sports sanctions were proposed.

Left front

At the centre of the agitation for a militant response to Mugabe's poll fraud is a developing united left front in which the young members of the International Socialist Organisation of Zimbabwe (ISOZ), the country's only revolutionary socialist party, play an influential role.

The front also includes the printing, engineering and construction unions, the Progressive Teachers Union (PTUZ), the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU), Students Against Privatisation (SAP) and the National Union of University Students (NUU). The recently launched Zimbabwe Indymedia web site (<http:www//zimbabwe.syntac.net>) has become an important outlet for the radical left's views and discussions.

Before the election, the MDC and its supporters within the ZCTU leadership argued against mass action to defeat the government's anti-union laws and to counter the escalating violence and intimidation. Instead, workers were urged to be patient and wait for the election of Tsvangirai.

In February, a ZCTU conference against the government's anti-union laws proposed that the ZCTU executive organise a general strike. The ZCTU leadership — which is controlled by MDC supporters but also includes ZANU-PF partisans — voted against taking such action.

In its first assessment of the election result, the ISOZ on March 14 argued that the MDC's defeat could not simply be blamed on the government violence and poll rigging. It also reflected disillusionment among "advanced" workers with the MDC's neo-liberal, pro-privatisation economic policies and its "consistent refusal to back workers actions" since the June 2000 parliamentary election.

"The voter turn-outs in Mashonaland provinces is a reflection of how important the land issue became. By seizing on this issue, ZANU-PF shored up its sagging support", the ISOZ stated.

The ISOZ also warned that "anger at the MDC's slowness at organising mass action [in response to Mugabe's poll fraud] is being sensed. The longer the MDC takes to do something, it is likely to become more isolated."

'Consult, prevaricate, postpone'

However, following the poll the conservative MDC leadership urged Zimbabweans to remain calm and not take to the streets. MDC leaders insisted that their response would "remain within the law". The approach of the MDC and ZCTU was summed up in a Indymedia headline: "Consult, prevaricate and postpone."

The MDC chose to rely on threats of legal action and appeals to Western governments, rather than mobilise the 1.2 million mainly working-class people who, on the government's deflated figures, voted for Tsvangirai.

An indication of support the MDC commands in the cities was the huge victory it scored in the concurrent Harare mayoral and council election. The MDC won 44 of the 45 council wards, and its mayoral candidate romped in with 262,000 votes to ZANU-PF's 57,000.

On March 15, a meeting was attended by a wide spectrum of opposition forces — including the MDC, ZCTU, the National Constitutional Assembly (which agitates for a democratic constitution), the liberal- left Crisis in Zimbabwe coalition, ZINASU and the ISOZ.

According to a report on Indymedia, ZINASU proposed a mass demonstration in Africa Unity Square to coincide with Mugabe's inauguration. The MDC and its supporters opposed the idea because they claimed it would leave the MDC open to charges of "treason".

In response to the inaction by ZCTU and MDC leaders, the ISOZ and its allies on March 17 urged workers to "demand that your union and ZCTU call for an indefinite general strike, and mass action, supported by a united front of progressive organisations".

"The leaders of the opposition and the labour movement ... are failing to give direction or openly call for stayaways or mass action ... instead they hang on Western imperialist aprons or pray for a government of national unity with the dictator", the ISOZ and its allies explained.

The ISOZ urged the labour movement to return "to the traditions of 1997-98" when militant mass action forced the Mugabe regime to reverse its anti-worker economic policies. "In Madagascar today and in Serbia in 2000, mass action booted out dictators who had stolen elections. This is what we must do now."

The demands proposed by the ISOZ included: the non-recognition of the Mugabe regime and opposition to a government of national unity; a new labour act and a minimum wage linked to inflation; the abolition of university tuition fees; a democratic constitution; and opposition to the ending of price controls, privatisation and the devaluation of the Zimbabwean dollar.

Under mounting pressure from its ranks, the ZCTU reluctantly and belatedly called a national three-day stayaway beginning March 20. While welcoming the move, the ISOZ and its allies criticised it as too little, too late. Nevertheless, left activists worked hard to publicise the action.

The ZCTU restricted the demands of the action to ending the violence directed at working-class Zimbabweans and the use of security legislation to prevent trade union activity. The removal of the Mugabe regime was not a demand of the action.

The police declared the stayaway illegal and detained ZCTU general secretary Wellington Chibebe and several student leaders, including ZINASU's Philip Pasirai and NUU's John Bomba. Police and troops were deployed in the townships and city centres. ZANU-PF militia and police were reported to be recording the names of workers who did not come to work.

Zimbabwe business leaders interrupted their March 20 confab with Mugabe to pointedly criticise the stayaway, contradicting ZANU-PF ministers claims that employers were paying workers to stay home. Labour minister July Moyo assured the employers that they were free to fire workers who did not report for duty.

According to accounts on Indymedia, the stayaway was poorly publicised and most ZCTU structures remained uninvolved.

The combined effect of government repression, demobilisation and the general demoralisation that followed Mugabe's return to power meant that the stayaway was poorly heeded.

From Green Left Weekly, March 27, 2002.
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