Finding a way through the deluge in Zimbabwe

Public sector strikes place major pressure on the Zimbabwean state, but not enough to effect a meaningful national dialogue on the country's direction.

File image of President Emmerson Mnangagwa hosting President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa. Image credit the Government of South Africa via Flickr CC.

The euphoria that marked the end of Robert Mugabe’s stay in power in the November 2017 coup quickly dissipated in the aftermath of these events. The resurgence of authoritarian politics in the form of the post-2018 election violence and the repression of opposition and civic dissent in January, August and November 2019, marked the predictable path of the former president’s legacy. The post-2017 regime of Emmerson Mnangagwa quickly slipped into the regressive forms of political rule that have defined the multi-layered Zimbabwean crisis since the late 1990s.

The much-proclaimed pronouncements on political and economic reform, adherence to constitutionalism, the respect for human rights and political pluralism, international re-engagement and the overall promise of a “new dispensation,” were quickly discarded. The tiresome political apparel of domestic repression was easily re-appropriated and paraded once again before the Zimbabwean citizenry.

The indicators of the economic catastrophe underway in Zimbabwe are well-known. With about 94% of the working population now fighting for survival in the informal sector, this figure represents the massive loss of formal employment in the post-1980 period. The country once again faces a surging inflationary spiral with the latter set to reach an average level of about 250% in 2019, according to economist Tony Hawkins.

This inflationary cycle has been driven by a combination of unsustainable state expenditure, with an estimated budgetary deficit of ZW$5.2 billion in 2019, in an economy whose production levels have sunk below the levels at independence, and in which there is little or no articulation between the central components of agriculture, mining, and manufacturing. This fiscal deficit has been financed for the most part through domestic loans from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and commercial banks, in the form of increasingly worthless treasury bonds.

The result has been a rapid loss of value of the official Zimbabwe dollar, which was returned to circulation after the multi-currency approach was abandoned in June 2019. The value of the fantasy currency dropped from a purported 1:1 at its inception to its current value of about 1:15 at the interbank market rate, and 21:1 on the parallel market.

When this inflationary crisis is combined with increasing poverty levels, the disastrous condition of the health and education sectors, an energy crisis that has resulted in 18-hour electricity blackouts, fuel shortages, major water shortages, and the fact that the World Food Program (WFP) has had to arrange for 240,000 tonnes of food aid for approximately 4,1 million Zimbabwean citizens, the country clearly faces a major crisis of social reproduction.

In response to the growing precarity of their livelihoods and the broader crisis of social reproduction, trade unions responded through strike action. In setting out their recourse to strike action various unions described the desperate, incapacitated state of their membership.

Such declarations of incapacitation have become the common refrain of both public and private sector workers as they seek redress for the demands. These desperate conditions of service also pertained in the security sector. In an admission to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Defense and Home Affairs in 2019, it was reported that the morale of soldiers and police forces had hit rock bottom due to a shortage of food and uniforms.

The result of these demands was a steady growth of strike action in the public sector. For much of 2019, public sector workers, including doctors, specialist doctors from the Senior Hospital Doctors Association (SHDA), nurses, teachers, air traffic controllers, and other civil servants have either been on strike or threatened strike action. Even the Apex Council, hitherto always considered a body close to the state and ruling party, threatened in July 2019, “to paralyze government operations if our demands are not taken seriously.”

With the public sector representing the largest part of the formal sector workforce in the economy, the importance of strikes should not be underestimated. In 1996, the public service strike was the largest labor action in the post-1980 period. It brought much of the state to a halt and strengthened ties between the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and the public sector unions. Significantly, the two-week strike in 1996, by more than 70 000 workers, was also ignited by health workers.

In the context of politics in 2019 this public sector strike is already adding to the legitimacy and capacity issues of the Mnangagwa regime. This is because every attempt to increase the salaries of the public sector workers has been rapidly eroded by the central failure of the regime to deal with issues around employment creation, new investment and expanded productivity.

These policy deficits have, in turn, created the conditions for the inflationary spiral and currency depreciation that, under current conditions, will persistently negate any wage increases and reproduce the strike wave. These challenges have been exacerbated by the deeply embedded corruption in the state. This was exemplified by the US$2,8 billion from the command agriculture subsidies that has not been accounted for, and the gross irregularities in the accounting of several parastatals as reported by the 2019 Report of the Auditor-General. Altogether, between 2015 and 2018, over US$9 billion in unauthorized expenditure was reported.

The response of the state to the strikes has been predictably violent and repressive. A report by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum in 2019 observed that overall violence has increased since the November 2017 coup. This includes an increase in abductions, arrests. armed clashes, attacks, looting/property destruction, mob violence, sexual violence, and violence against citizens. The report also warned of the increase in the involvement of citizens in violence indicating a marked growth in the danger of civil unrest. The deteriorating human rights situation in Zimbabwe was also observed by a UN report that reported the “fear, frustration and anxiety among many Zimbabweans” in 2019, as a result of the deteriorating political, economic and social conditions in the country.

Since the November 2017 coup, there have been several calls for a national dialogue involving not just the major political parties but inclusive of various groups in civil society. In September 2019 a National Citizen’s Convention, organized by the Citizen’s Manifesto composed of various civic and faith-based organizations as well as academics and business leaders, called for a new social contract in Zimbabwe. The aim of such a contract would be to build a foundation for social cohesion, national healing and reconciliation and enduring peace in the country.

In a similar vein, a grouping of the major religious denominations in the country, under the auspices of the Zimbabwe Heads of the Christian Denominations (ZHOCD), has called for a Sabbath on elections in the country for seven years.

The proposal sets out that during this period a structure would be set up to: establish an emergency recovery mechanism to address the dire national situation, especially for the most vulnerable groupings; rebuild trust and confidence by healing all the hurts of the past; develop a shared national reform agenda to deepen democracy; establish a shared and inclusive national economic vision. This proposal was complemented by the position of the Platform for Concerned Citizens, which since 2017 has called for the establishment of a National Transitional Authority (NTA).

Among other tasks, such an NTA would facilitate a national dialogue and assist in the establishment of internationally mediated talks between the two major political forces in the country, with a neutral mediator.

In response to the call for national dialogue the two major political parties, Zanu PF and the MDC Alliance, have thus far either rejected the idea or agreed to it under specific terms. In the case of Zanu PF Mnangagwa rejected the church’s call for a temporary stay on elections, on the grounds of its “subversion” of the constitution. In addition, Mnangagwa implied that the churches had set out an agenda of action that could be identified with the political agenda of Chamisa’s MDC. Mnangagwa’s position was confirmed by Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga who stated that there would be no need for external mediation in Zimbabwe as the country has the capacity to solve its own problems.

The MDC has similar reservations about the ZHOCD proposal because of its “significant legal and constitutional implications”. However, the party indicated that it would agree to a national dialogue with an “independent convenor to map a way forward.” Central to the strategy of the MDC in pushing such a dialogue has been a combination of denying Mnangagwa political legitimacy, protests, and continued calls for international and regional pressure, through the sanctions narrative.

Thus, at present there is little sign of movement towards a national dialogue. However, there are indications that there are voices in the ruling party that would like to enter broad discussion with Chamisa’s MDC. Zanu PF Youth League political commissar, Godfrey Tsenengamu, is reported to have complained about the “saboteurs who are proponents and promoters of anarchy, political and economic instability” in Zanu PF, who are opposed to a dialogue between Mnangagwa and Chamisa. These forces, he claims, are the “sharks strategically positioned in the party and government who are benefiting from the status quo and who stand to benefit if the situation degenerates.”

The political polarization that characterizes the national context is also apparent at the regional and international levels. The European Union and the U.S. have insisted that the crisis in Zimbabwe is the result not of sanctions but “years of mismanagement and corruption.” The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) has stood in solidarity with the Mnangagwa government and called for the end to sanctions because of their adverse effects on the Zimbabwean economy and the region. For the most part, the hopes for international re-engagement that followed the removal of Mugabe have dissipated.

Yet, despite the bleakness of the political and economic situation, there are small signs of a way beyond the current impasse. A recent statement by the South African Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, Naledi Pandor, showed a clear understanding of the need for a more substantive national dialogue in Zimbabwe. While the Minister reiterated the SADC call for the end of sanctions, she also stated that the economic and political challenges needed to be confronted, simultaneously, through the coming together of political forces in Zimbabwe.

Both major political parties in Zimbabwe face considerable obstacles that could provide them with a major incentive to move towards a national dialogue, with the assistance of key players in SADC. Zanu PF is confronted with major economic challenges on several fronts, to which it has no adequate response, and is in desperate need of outside assistance. The regression in its hopes of international re-engagement combined with continued factionalism in the ruling party is likely to push the latter into an increasing reliance on violence and repression. This response would only raise further questions around the party’s capacity to lead the country forward.

For the MDC and Chamisa the combined strategy of denying legitimacy to the Mnangagwa government, protests, and the idea that the collapse of the economy will lead to the eventual breakdown of the current regime also has its limits.

The state retains the capacity to shut down protests, and the increasing decline of the economy will most likely continue to weaken the capacity of the largely informal workforce for sustained protests. This would push workers further into individual survival strategies. The outcomes of the public sector strikes remain an open question.

Although the actions of public sector workers have without doubt placed major pressure on the state, it will still require broader pressure at national, regional and international levels, to provide a decisive push for a meaningful national dialogue.

This piece was first published in the Zimbabwe Independent. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.

About the Author

Brian Raftopoulos is director of Research and Advocacy, Ukuthula Trust, an NPO based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

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