- Strike follows finance ministry delay in payment of salaries
- Protests over police harassment rocked Harare on Monday
Zimbabwe deployed police around the capital, Harare, on Wednesday as thousands of workers heeded a call to join a strike over an economic collapse that has led to a shortage of cash, import controls and the failure of the government to pay salaries on time.
While the government warned workers not to join the stayaway, some schools were closed and there was little traffic on main roads into the city. Most companies in Harare’s industrial areas were shut. The labor action was called following the Finance Ministry’s announcement that it was delaying pay for state workers, including the military, and riots sparked by protests by taxi drivers over alleged police harassment.
“The civil servants have the right to protest but there are procedures that have to be followed,” Supa Mandiwanzira, the acting public service minister, said Wednesday by phone. “Those processes haven’t been exhausted. If they take part in an unsanctioned process there will be consequences, and they must disregard this call for a stayaway.”
President Robert Mugabe’s administration has faced a worsening cash shortage in recent months. Since abandoning its own currency in 2009 to end hyperinflation, Zimbabwe has used mainly U.S. dollars, as well as South African rand, euros, and British pounds. The government spends about 83 percent of its revenue on wages for state workers, according to Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa.
On Monday, Harare was hit by riots as minibus taxi operators staged demonstrations in suburbs around the capital to complain that police routinely demand money when they stop vehicles to check whether they are roadworthy. Police responded by unleashing dogs, firing tear gas and arresting 95 people. Violent clashes also erupted last weekend at Zimbabwe’s main border post with South Africa, forcing its closure, when the government banned the import of certain goods.
There was further unrest in the western Harare suburb of Mufakose Wednesday and people tried to loot shops before police brought the situation under control, police spokeswoman Charity Charamba said by phone. Fifteen people were arrested in Harare and 17 in the Matabeleland North province on Wednesday, while figures from other provinces were not yet available, she told reporters.
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights staff were responding to arrests in Harare and the towns of Victoria Falls and Zvishavane, Kumbirai Mafunda, a spokesman for the civil rights group, said by phone. Ten people were arrested in Chipenge, said Claris Madhuku, a political activist in the southeastern town.
Police detained five journalists who were reporting on the upheaval on Wednesday and forced them to delete their pictures before releasing them, said Forster Dongozi, the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists.
“We are going to be suing the minister of home affairs and police commissioner-general,” Dongozi said by phone. “This is not acceptable.”
The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe said in a statement Wednesday that social media and mobile phones were being used to distribute “abusive and subversive materials” and warned that those responsible could be prosecuted.
Most of the Zimbabwean countryside, where the majority of the population lives, was unaffected by the strike, Education Minister Jonathan Moyo said in a Twitter posting.
The Apex Council, which represents civil servants, had received reports of some teachers who had joined the strike being intimidated to return to work, its chairwoman, Cecilia Alexander, said by phone.
“Most schools in the urban and peri-urban area have no teachers,” John Mulilo, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association said by phone. “We are pleased with the general response of the educators to stay away.”
In the western tourism hub of Victoria Falls, hotels and shops continued to operate but most other businesses were closed, Clement Mkwasi, a spokesman for the town’s publicity association, said by phone. Thirty people who staged a placard demonstration were swiftly dispersed by police, he said.
The Zimbabwe Health Service Board said in a statement Wednesday that the Treasury had informed it that it would pay health workers on July 8 rather than July 14 as previously announced.
South Africa’s government and the governing African National Congress are preparing for the possibility that Zimbabwe may implode and people could stream over the border, Johannesburg-based Beeld newspaper reported, without citing anyone. Clayson Monyela, a spokesman for the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, didn’t answer a call seeking comment.
While Zimbabwe is a failing state and anything could happen there, the labor action is unlikely to bring an end to Mugabe’s rule, said Moeletsi Mbeki, the deputy chairman of the South African Institute for International Affairs.
“Zimbabwe is a dictatorship for practical purposes,” Mbeki said by phone from Johannesburg. “If you have 80 percent or 85 percent unemployment, which is what is what Zimbabwe is said to have, then you don’t really have a modern economy and the few who remain employed have very little negotiating power. How does one see an end game in that situation?”