the big interview BY OBEY MANAYITI
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) yesterday said its general council had resolved to mobilise workers for a mass stayaway to protest against the deteriorating economic situation.
A stayaway called by the ZCTU in January turned violent and President Emmerson Mnangagwa deployed the army in urban areas and human rights groups say soldiers killed 17 people and raped several women.
ZCTU leaders were charged with treason and last week the labour centre said its officials had received death threats.
Peter Mutasa (PM), the ZCTU president, told our senior reporter Obey Manayiti (OM) in an exclusive interview that the January events and the alleged death threats would not deter them from calling for the stayaway.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
OM: The economic situation has not changed since the ZCTU organised a two-day mass stayaway in January and the plight of workers continues to get worse. Do you have any concrete data that can illustrate the condition of the worker in Zimbabwe at the moment?
PM: Yes, the situation is now worse than January 2019.
It is also much worse than what we experienced with former president Robert Mugabe in late 2017.
We are currently collating data about some of the issues arising like job losses, non-payment of wages, levels of salaries erosion, pension losses etc.
OM: How are ordinary workers surviving in the face of economic challenges?
PM: Workers are the hardest hit because despite earning almost nothing, they still have to continue reporting for work. As a result, many workers are borrowing money for transport and some are walking to work. Due to ill-advised policies, prices of goods and services are pegged in US$, while salaries have remained in valueless RTGS.
This has resulted in a serious disequilibrium that is hurting workers and poor citizens.
A lot of workers’ families are starving as their salaries are barely sufficient to cater for a one-week food basket.
Most families are now affording only one decent meal a day.
Schoolchildren are going to school hungry and many without adequate winter clothing.
Workers and their families are dying in homes or in public hospitals because they can no longer afford medical care.
Drugs are expensive and medical aid schemes are now dysfunctional.
A visit to a doctor requires one to borrow a loan for consultation alone because it now costs two or three months’ salary.
Many schoolchildren are dropping out or will do so due to failure by their parents to pay school fees. In short, we have a humanitarian crisis of gigantic proportions.
OM: The ZCTU has been threatening another round of mass stayaways for some time. Are the delays an indication that you are developing cold feet?
PM: Not at all. We experienced barbaric state brutality in January and we need to ensure that this time around we put in place measures to prevent the same.
Part of the delay is, therefore, informed by the need to have conversations with workers on how we can collectively navigate these areas.
Again, due to the ever-changing policies and environment, we must carry out wide consultations with workers so that we have a common understanding of the material conditions affecting workers.
Some trade union leaders, as we witnessed with some celebrating the reintroduction of the Zimbabwe dollar, had a narrow understanding of the situation.
They thought once the Zimbabwe dollar was introduced all the problems of the workers would disappear.
In fact, some were now more of government spokespersons promoting a policy that hurts workers and that was promulgated without consultations.
We, therefore, needed more time to convince the generality of workers, including those being deceived by some leaders, that these policies won’t work for them.
Now the majority agrees with our position because of the hardships they are facing.
Again all our projections about the effects of these policies on workers and the poor have been confirmed.
Thus any delay we have is necessary for our action to be effective.
OM: There have been reports of ZCTU leaders allegedly receiving death threats. Have you established where those threats are coming from and the motive?
PM: We are witnessing what we never witnessed even with the Mugabe regime. It is sad that all the hope for a better Zimbabwe we had in November 2017 has been turned into a big disappointment.
We now rue the moment we sided with those in power in their factional fight with Mugabe.
It is now clear that there was nothing for ordinary citizens, let alone workers, in the events of November 2017.
We received threats against us and our families and one can’t believe that this is happening in a supposedly independent Zimbabwe. This, in a much hyped “new dispensation”?
At least I am a trade unionist by choice and understand the risks associated with standing up for the poor against brutal regimes. Not that any trade unionist must be harmed, but more fundamentally our families are not involved in any of our duties. How can someone sane threaten to harm our kids? This is unimaginable in any modern civilised society.
We demand that the state must guarantee our security.
The threats had all the hallmarks of state operations and we put full responsibility on the state on whatever will happen to us or our families.
We also call on the international community to ask the state to guarantee the security of all trade union activists.
These threats are real, for we have seen other trade unionists like Obert Masaraure being abducted and tortured.
We, therefore, take these seriously, but will continue with our lawful duties and put everything in the hands of our Lord Jesus Christ. If He allows that they kill us, what can we do? We are here on earth at His will.
The motive is not hidden. The government is aware that its policies are failing dismally and that the socio-economic situation is unbearable.
The government is aware that its policies are not accepted by the generality of the citizens, hence it has no consent of the citizens.
These threats are, therefore, meant to silence workers and the poor citizens from airing their grievances as provided for in the constitution. This is unfortunate because there can only be positive change if there is effective public engagement.
OM: What guarantees can the ZCTU give that its planned protests would be peaceful?
PM: We have always had peaceful activities.
We believe that in most instances where there was violence, it was infiltration by those who will be building a case against us.
In some cases it was clearly false flags that were strategically activated in order to justify the brutality.
However, in other cases it was a matter of poorly managed public order policing.
We are, however, learning from some of these experiences and will make clear messages emphasising that workers must remain in their homes. We will also urge the police to use internationally recognised policing standards.
OM: Do you think Zimbabweans will heed calls for protests or stayaway given the brutal way the military responded to the January protests?
PM: We are actually being pushed by the workers who feel that they have no choice than to protest in order for their voice to be heard.
Many citizens are suffering and despite the brutality would like to raise their grievances peacefully.
Look at how the energy crisis, for instance, is affecting every citizen, the transport situation, the cost of living, poor health services and many other factors.
Citizens are ready to peacefully raise their concerns. We urge the government to take this as a positive engagement and listen to the concerns of the workers and citizens.
We are not enemies of the state, but citizens raising genuine grievances that must be addressed.
OM: In your view, what should the government do to address the economic problems facing the country and address the plight of workers?
PM: The first issue is that it must recognise that it cannot foist policies unto citizens and use force to support the policies.
The government must ensure that it gets the consent of the citizens. It must use the various provisions of the constitution and other legal frameworks to effectively engage the public.
There is need for government to aim for a new social contract, which ensures that there is ownership of democratically formulated policies.
In addition, the government has to be transparent, accountable and responsive to the needs of the citizens. It cannot go it alone.
Without facilitating a shared national vision and robust national cohesion, the government is doomed to fail.
The government also must realise the folly of following disastrous neo-liberal policies like austerity measures that have failed to stimulate economic recovery
everywhere around the globe.
It must understand that its corporate welfarist approaches like the mantra “Zimbabwe is Open for Business” that seeks to redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich will not lead to economic recovery, but economic and social disasters.
Above all, there is need for serious political, governance, economic and social reforms.
We need to build independent institutions, respect people’s freedoms, end state repression and genuinely fight corruption, not the half-hearted and factional riddled jokes we see currently.
We need to acknowledge the economic structure we have and not hound the informal and rural economies, but support and use them as engines of economic growth.
We must immediately ditch the externally imposed economic policies and democratically craft an auto centric development agenda that is a clear alternative to neoliberalism.
This needs to be pro-poor and focused on satisfying the needs of the people first.
We also need serious social policy reforms such as redirecting government efforts away from corporate welfare to social welfare, building resilient and sustainable social security and protection frameworks.
It is a mammoth task that requires a government that is not focused on power retention like we currently experience, but one aiming for nation building.
OM: What are your views on increasing calls for dialogue between President Emmerson Mnangagwa and opposition leader Nelson Chamisa as one of the ways to address Zimbabwe’s economic problems?
PM: Zimbabwe is not going to get out of its problems without a political settlement of some sort.
However, we are for dialogue that takes into account the socio-economic political forces along.
We, therefore, recognise the centrality of the two protagonists President Emmerson Mnangagwa and MDC president Nelson Chamisa, but also make it clear that the dialogue must carry on board other stakeholders’ interests such as labour, youths, women, those with disabilities, rural communities, business etc.
It must be broad-based and clearly developmental and not just sharing political power.
We must learn from the failures and successes of the GNU and improve.
OM: One of the country’s leading teachers’ trade unions – Zimbabwe Teachers Association (Zimta) pulled out of the ZCTU citing the alleged links between you and the MDC. What is your reaction to that move?
PM: Zimta was never in ZCTU for a long time. We also understand its political inclinations and how difficult it was for it to be in a truly independent federation that has no permanent friends but permanent interests. If one considers the way it announced the move, one will clearly see the political nature of the withdrawal.
It was timed well for the International Labour Conference, where the ZCTU had a serious case against the government of Zimbabwe based on continued repression
and brutality against trade unions.
The only defence of the state against the well-documented cases was that the ZCTU was pursuing political goals.
Thus Zimta’s move was well-timed to aid this narrative.
We, however, managed to successfully present our case and the government was found to be in violation of convention 87 in many ways.
There is no other explanation for Zimta’s decision to go to all radio and television stations before it even formally pulled out.
All the decisions we made were made democratically in our general council with full participation of Zimta representatives.
It could not turn around and make the unfounded allegations without even raising them with fellow comrades in the General Council.
OM: What is your reaction to arguments that your close ties with the MDC compromises your ability to effectively represent workers?
PM: These are made by people who do not understand who we are, our history and how we make our decisions.
We are completely independent from any political forces and do not have any unhealthy relationship with the MDC. Unions are supposed to relate with many social, economic and political stakeholders and we are also not an exception.
In other countries unions actually have formal relationships with political parties.
Look at South Africa and the United Kingdom. For as long as unions remain independent and can make independent decisions, there is no harm.
However, for us despite forming the MDC and providing early leaders, we did not create a formal relationship.
We,therefore, are independent and have workers from all political parties.
Our general council has trade union leaders who support different political parties.
Unfortunately, our country’s problems are more political in nature for example the endemic political corruption, shrinking democratic space, repression, lack of constitutionalism etc.
When we raise these issues that are also raised by the opposition we are branded an extension of the opposition.
However, we cannot stop raising these issues because these are some of the root causes of the workers problems.
OM: What are your views on the ongoing wage negotiations between the government and civil servants? Do you think the government has the capacity to give its workers what they are asking for?
PM: The government has capacity to pay decent salaries to the civil servants.
That is if it deals with endemic corruption, closes leakages such as illicit financial flows, pillaging of our natural resources, uneconomic mega deals, carrying of ghost workers etc.
We also need to destroy the parasitic cartels that are holding the country at ransom. We have the resources but no stewardship.
The negotiations are a big joke. The government through SI 33 and SI 142 of 2019 allowed corporates to peg prices in United States dollars but disallowed workers’ salaries to also be pegged on US dollars.
This means workers’ salaries have been eroded by up to 10-fold.
Any negotiations that do not seek to remedy this by either ensuring that workers get US dollars or the equivalent using the exchange rate is a useless process.
Such negotiations seek to cement the oppressive and exploitative internal devaluation agenda of the International Monetary Fund that is being carried out here as an experiment. Its effects have been disastrous and any sound trade unionist must not accept that.
So the government has to correct the effects of SI 142 by giving back workers the value of their salaries lost through these policies before it tries to hoodwink labour leaders into any negotiations.