WHEN music star Leonard Zhakata composed his hit song Mugove (loosely translated it means a fair wage), he probably never imagined that the track would still be relevant nearly three decades on.
Mugove was from the then 26-year-old’s debut album, Maruva Enyika. The hugely popular collection was Zhakata’s debut album after the artisan-cum-singer parted ways with his late cousin and fellow musician, Thomas Makion of Maungwe Brothers fame.
The hit capture class struggles in Zimbabwe during the period of International Monetary Fund (IMF)-prescribed reforms which many critics say were an ill-informed belt-tightening policy shift.
Typical of most IMF programmes during the time, the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) came with several neo-liberal reforms which shook to the core president Robert Mugabe’s Marxist-rooted administration.
In years to come, Mugabe was to later face popular protests such as the food riots and buckling to pressure from liberation war heroes demanding the redistribution of vast tracts of land held by white farmers.
On Monday, Zimbabwe commemorated Workers’ Day at a time the informalisation of the economy has signalled the dearth of the once radical culture of unionism, which dates back to the pre- and post-colonial era.
The militant tradition of Zimbabwe’s labour movement was pioneered and revolutionised by luminaries such as Benjamin Burombo, Joshua Nkomo, Masotsha Ndlovu, Lovemore Matombo, Gibson Sibanda, Thokozani Khupe and Morgan Tsvangirai, just to mention a few.
Today’s latter-day union leaders are under the spotlight.
Critics say despite promising the enjoyment of political and civil rights, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has dragged Zimbabwe back to pre-colonial times.
They say peaceful protests are repelled by police brutality and union leaders have been harassed, intimidated and tortured. The domestic currency is plunging against the backdrop of high levels of inflation.
The dollar is now trading at US$1:ZW$2 000 on the parallel market while the official rate is just above ZW$1 000:US$1. Young people are unemployed, abusing drugs and fleeing the country.
Nelson Chamisa, the opposition Citizens’ Coalition for Change leader, was one of the key speakers at the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU)-organised event which was held at Chemhanza Stadium in Dzivaresekwa, Harare.
For Chamisa, a former youth leader of the Movement for Democratic Change which is now a fractured party born out of a popular labour movement in the late ’90s, Workers’ Day evoked yesteryear memories.
Before Chamisa delivered his speech, Zhakata’s timeless tune, Mugove, played on the public-address system, driving the converged workers into a frenzy.
The song resonates with the status quo. It is an earnest appeal to employers to pay a decent living wage to workers against the backdrop of a deteriorating economic environment.
Not much has been done since Zhakata made his clarion call through music.
Efforts to forge a social contract among labour, government and employers under the Tripartite Negotiating Forum have failed over the years as local firms fold while others scale down, giving rise to a huge informal sector.
“Workers’ Day is a special day to appreciate, salute and celebrate the amazing efforts, resilience and endurance of all hard-pressed workers who gave and continue to give their sweat and blood building our Zimbabwe great under difficult times,” Chamisa roared.
“The punitive economic environment has been so toxic to the people in the informal sector (as their working capital is being eroded by exchange rate spiral and inflation) who have been trying to make ends meet in the face of high unemployment rate which is above 90%.
“Likewise, workers are failing to put a decent meal on the table and many are now in the poverty bracket. Some workers can’t afford to buy a loaf of bread daily. Our teachers can’t send their kids to standard boarding schools and the same teacher is expected to teach other parents’ kids?”
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) only 45% of the global population is effectively covered by at least one social benefit, while the remaining four billion people are left behind.
That figure may be higher in countries of the global south like Zimbabwe where governments struggle to provide safety nets.
While the informal sector has become a source of employment for millions who have never received a payslip in their lifetime, eking out a living from this may have serious economic implications which may prejudice Treasury of revenue.
Zimbabwe, according to the World Bank Country Economic Memorandum published last year, has one of the largest informal sectors on the globe and the authorities should implement policies which promote formalisalisation of informal firms to stimulate economic growth.
The report further revealed that Zimbabwe’s growth performance has been challenged by its large informal sector, complicating productivity growth, effectiveness of policies, and long-term development.
“At the macro-economic level, pervasive informality limits the tax base and constrains the government’s ability to mobilise domestic resources,” the World Bank said.
“Constrained private sector growth has limited the number of quality jobs. Only 33% of workers in Zimbabwe receive a salary, well below peers in the region and globally, suggesting a limited share of quality jobs despite workers possessing relatively higher skills.
“Labour productivity in informal firms is only a fraction of the labour productivity in similar formal firms, negatively affecting overall productivity. Moreover, competition from informal firms has tended to lower the productivity of formal firms by around 24% on average, compared with firms that do not face such competition. Dealing with the challenges of informality requires sustained economic growth, and a comprehensive and consistent policy package that tackles the root causes and consequences of informality.”
Running under the theme Workers Demand an Inclusive Zimbabwe; Free of Poverty, Corruption and Oppression, this year’s commemorations by the ZCTU highlighted growing resentment towards the government’s authoritarian tendencies and rising levels of poverty.
As the government continues to target union leaders, artistes, politicians and journalists have not been spared.
After releasing Mugove, Zhakata went on to release more hits which were to later face censorship, which might stem from the reputation he acquired early on as an anti-government and populist singer.
Zhakata, in doing so, joined icons like self-exiled Chimurenga icon Thomas Mapfumo in the fight for political freedom through music.
In his 2002 song titled Sakunatsa, Zhakata deplored the government’s unethical use of the repressive state apparatus and questioned the selective application of the law.
The year 2003 saw his songs from the album Hodho, speaking against politically motivated violence, banned on Zimbabwe’s airwaves. Back then, Zimbabwe had only a few radio stations.
Analysts say as the censorship and impunity continues, workers will continue bearing the brunt of bad economic policies and mis-governance.