6 August, 2020The Zimbabwean government has used Covid-19 as a pretext to ban demonstrations. People who heeded the call on 31 July to protest corruption, human rights violations, capture of state institutions, and for workers’ rights and living wages were abducted, arrested, assaulted, tortured or forced into hiding. There has been widespread international condemnation.
Amongst those arrested was award winning author Tsitsi Dangarembga whose novel This Mournable Body is on the Booker Prize long list for 2020. She is out on bail while others remain in prison. Some unionists have gone into hiding to avoid the arrests.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum says over 40 people have been arrested since 20 July and these include activists, investigative journalists reporting on corruption surrounding Covid-19 funds, and opposition politicians.
Early this week, a Twitter campaign, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, that condemns the human rights violations attracted regional and international solidarity, with over 700,000 posts. In response to the popular campaign, President Emmerson Mnangagwa said on 4 August that the economic crisis was caused by “opposition political elements, illegal economic sanctions, cyclones, droughts and more recently the Covid19 pandemic.” He also blamed the crisis on “bad apples” that he said, “will be flushed out.”
The repression worsens the dire situation of Zimbabwean workers. They earn far below living wages and cannot afford basics. Working time has been reduced due to Covid-19 restrictions, resulting in even less wages. In some sectors, workers earn as little as US $40 to US $75 per month, and say they need a minimum of at least US $200 to be able to buy food.
When workers finish work, there is no public transport, and some walk over 25 km to get home. They must walk this distance or face arrests under a Covid-19 curfew. The government has banned private transport operators in favour of an unreliable state-owned bus company.
IndustriALL Global Union has 10 affiliates in Zimbabwe that organize workers in the chemical, plastics, energy, metal and engineering, mining, and textile, garment, leather and shoe, and other sectors.
With hyperinflation around 737 per cent, the economy is in a crisis with fuel and money shortages common. However, unions are not relenting. To cushion workers against the harsh economic environment, they are preparing for a general strike for living wages.
Protesting the harsh conditions is seen by the government as an attempt at “regime change” and met with threats and repression by the security forces. For instance, the ruling ZANU PF party said last week that the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) is a “terrorist organization” much to the condemnation by Zimbabwean unions, South African federations, regional, and global trade union organizations. The ZCTU president Peter Mutasa is in hiding after his name appeared on a police list for “interviews” in connection with the demonstrations.
Paule-France Ndessomin, IndustriALL regional secretary for Sub Saharan Africa says:
“Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution recognizes fundamental human rights and freedoms as well as labour rights. This means that the government has a responsibility to ensure that these rights are protected and not violated by state security forces. The Covid-19 pandemic should not be used as an excuse to violate workers and human rights.”
Mavis Koogotsitse, executive secretary of the Southern Africa Trade Union Coordinating Council, condemned “the continued hostile treatment and intimidation of trade unionists and civil society activists by state security agents in Zimbabwe.”
Image: a file photo of police violence in Harare in October 2019. By Lovejoy Mtongwiza