President Thabo Mbeke of South Africa cannot bring himself to utter a word about the misery the regime of Robert Mugabe is inflicting on the people of Zimbabwe. But the South African Congress of Trade Unions (COSATU) shows no such reluctance. Tomorrow and Wednesday, COSATU is organising demonstrations in Johannesburg and marching to the Zimbabwean High Commissioner's office. Their solidarity action coincides with the defiant decision by Zimbabwe’s Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) to call for a two-day "stay-away" in protest at the dramatic decline in living conditions inside the country. COSATU secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi said his organisation would proceed with its protest plans despite calls for dialogue by Southern African leaders over the crisis in Zimbabwe. "We are proceeding with the protests. We are not going to let go because there is a promise of dialogue." As for the "dialogue", it’s all one way traffic. Mugabe reportedly told regional leaders, including Mbeke, that his police had beaten up opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai because the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader had "asked for it". On Saturday, Zanu-PF endorsed 83-year-old Mugabe as its candidate for next year’s scheduled presidential elections. On Sunday, nine Zimbabwean opposition activists were abducted from hospital by suspected state security agents. MDC party members had been admitted in hospital on Saturday for treatment for injuries suffered when they were assaulted by the police.
Under Mugabe, the economy has disintegrated and hyper-inflation of around 2000% runs parallel with the 80% unemployment rate. An estimated 3 million Zimbabweans have left - two-thirds of the country's working-age population from doctors and teachers to farm labourers and soldiers. Most have headed south across the Limpopo river, bribing their way into South Africa. "We are saying the worker can no longer cope and the government has chosen to ignore our demands… so we have agreed that the stay away will go ahead on Tuesday and Wednesday," ZCTU leader Lovemore Matombo said. The ZCTU said it wanted an agreement on a minimum wage that was linked to a poverty baseline and for the government to solve the economic crisis. Matombo acknowledged the possibility of a violent backlash from the security forces, and said the workers would not march in the streets this time around, but just stay at home. Mugabe’s thugs recently stormed ZCTU offices and arrested union officials. Police in September last year stopped a planned peaceful march by the ZCTU and arrested its leadership and some workers, beating them and severely injuring them in custody. Matombo added that the ZCTU would organise work boycotts every three months until the government meets their demands. Student leaders have also voiced support for the stay-away. Beloved Chiweshe, secretary general of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU), said students faced a shrinking labour force and collapsing economy when they graduated and should back the ZCTU’s actions. Meanwhile, 17 student activists, including the union’s vice-president, were due in court today on charges of holding an illegal demonstration.
Zimbabwe’s workers need all the international support they can muster against a regime that has degenerated into a travesty of the movement that helped throw the British out and secure independence. Meanwhile in South Africa, Mbeke faces a build-up of opposition himself, as the decision by COSATU to stage demonstrations in support of Zimbabwe’s trade unions shows. Mbeke’s government has consolidated the power of capitalism in South Africa at the expense of the working class, while producing a new ruling, corrupt political elite. No wonder he is silent about the plight of the people of Zimbabwe. As are the leaders of China, which last year signed a major minerals deal with Mugabe. In return, the Chinese opposed discussion at the Security Council of a damning UN report into Zimbabwe's slum clearances, which left 700,000 Zimbabweans homeless and destitute and affected a further 2.4 million.
Paul Feldman, communications editor