CRISIS in Zimbabwe Coalition (CiCZ) chairperson and former Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) president Peter Mutasa (PM) was awarded the International Trade Union Confederation Africa (ITUC-Africa) Award for his exploits in trade unionism.
Mutasa has been an outspoken voice representing the country’s workers, whose livelihoods have been severely blighted by the worsening socio-economic crisis.
The NewsHawks reporter Nathan Guma (NG) caught up with Mutasa, as he reflected on his journey, the state of trade unionism after the 2017 military coup. He also spoke about abductions, while giving his outlook on workers’ quality of life against an anti-people 2024 National Budget recently presented by Finance minister Mthuli Ncube.
NG: Congratulations on winning the latest award. How do you feel being recognised internationally for your exploits in trade unionism?
PM: Thank you very much. I thank God for the privilege and honour to represent workers of Zimbabwe in a manner recognised by other trade unions around the globe.
This is a third award after UNI Global Union gave me the UNI Freedom from Fear award and FNV handed me the Febe Elizabeth Velásquez Trade Union Rights Prize.
I always know that this recognition comes from the collective struggles of the workers of Zimbabwe.
It is the many workers’ representatives around the country who daily sacrifice their jobs and lives that make us recognisable leaders. They organise and mobilise workers daily for our collective struggles.
This award is for all these heroes and she-roes who defend workers’ rights at a personal cost. Some lost employment, others were jailed while some lost their lives seeking labour justice.
NG: There have been challenges dogging human rights defenders and trade unionists. But looking back, how can you describe your journey in trade unionism?
PM: I always look back and wonder at why the Zimbabwean government hates the trade unionists and human rights defenders.
I joined the trade union movement in the last years of Morgan Tsvangirai’s trade union leadership days. Since then there has never been a time when the government of Zimbabwe stopped brutalising trade unionists.
During my five-year tenure at ZCTU and despite the fact that much of it was under Covid-19 restrictions, l was not spared the brutality. In 2018 when we were demonstrating against high taxes and cost of living we were beaten and arrested by the police.
Soon after our release from prison we were stalked and threatened in different ways.
At one time together with SG [secretary-general] Japhet Moyo, we received threatening letters with bullets at our offices and homes.
This frightened everyone at our offices and homes. We also received letters threatening to rape our daughters.
The bullies whom we suspect to be both state and Zanu PF agents gave details of our children’s movements, including the schools they were at.
This disturbed our families and changed every family member’s routine. I could not believe why defending workers’ rights in a supposedly independent state could attract such harsh state attention.
In 2019 after the ZCTU called for a protest against high fuel price increases it got worse. We were hunted like dangerous criminals.
State agents broke into my house, breaking all window and doors. They abducted my 19-year-old nephew whom they tortured in the forests for the whole night.
He says they tore all his clothes with a sharp knife, poured some liquid all over his body and beat him till he lost consciousness.
All this time they were threatening to put him in a sack and throw him into a dam. They only left him when they were satisfied that he was not my son they were looking for.
When he finally managed to walk back home naked around 4am, many would run away from him because of the state he was in. We are fortunate that he survived this torture.
At one time we were broadcast all over all state television and radios as most wanted persons by the police.
Then the Zanu PF senior official [Patrick] Chinamasa called us terrorists and enemies of the state.
All this affected the people around us, especially our families and parents.
So, it was a tough journey, but because l knew that many other human rights defenders went through worse off experiences, l would count myself fortunate. Up to now, we do not know where Itai Dzamara is.
Moreblessing Ali was murdered and recently we buried Pastor Masaya, all killed by suspected state and Zanu PF agents. It can only be God who protected us from death during that time. We also survived and continued with our tasks because we were convinced that we were carrying out a just cause.
NG: You have been advocating crucial issues like the valuation of pensions and benefits for people who lost their savings in the transition from the local currency to the United States dollar in 2009. Do you see any solution the problem anytime soon?
PM: Sadly, the country is in wrong hands. The people ruling us have lost any moral consciousness.
They don’t care about workers or people of Zimbabwe. They only care about power, themselves and their families.
The economy has been taken over by the ruling elites and their cronies. Public services have been destroyed and now expensive for the majority. We are in a big crisis. Nothing will come from the ruling elites.
The citizens have to organise themselves and fight back. Workers are the most affected.
With very poor salaries and under repression the only way out is non-violent civil resistance.
The labour movement must rise and fight back.
NG: There have been scathing attacks on trade unionists of late, with the likes of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe Artuz and others falling victim.
In comparison, how do you view trade unionism in comparison with the pre-2017 era?
PM: The Mugabe regime was bad, but the current regime is worse. We are basically under military rule with an unannounced but operational marshal law.
All our fundamental constitutional rights and freedoms have been taken away. The government has attacked all fundamental rights include freedom of speech, assembly and association.
They are using many strategies including propaganda, violence, censorship, cooptation and lawfare. They want trade unions and trade unionists who are compliant and who do not challenge their repressive rule.
They have succeeded with other unions, especially some who represent public service workers.
They are coopted and threatened into silence and compliance. Even in some private sector unions the regime has managed to coopt some leaders and use them to silence unions.
The Amalgamated Rural Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (Artuz) has been raising workers’ issues and broader good governance demands.
As a result, Obert Masaraure, Robson Chere and their team have been targeted for reprisal. We need to quickly find a collective way out of this brutal grip. Under the current regime, workers will remain reduced to paupers.
NG: What can you say about the abductions that are now rife and mainly targeting human rights defenders?
PM: It is simply a reflection of a government that has lost legitimacy. The rulers themselves are aware they have lost any form of legitimacy.
Even as they try to get some judicial cover on political legitimacy, they are aware that they have failed to gain output legitimacy.
The government’s failure to provide public services and development remains its Achilles heel. When a government fails to manage the economy, to provide public services and to guarantee human security, it can only rule by force.
The abductions and murder of innocent citizens only show that the government has failed.
NG: The new budget has introduced a seriously heavy tax regime which is downgrading workers’ already low earnings. What is your outlook on the workers’ quality of life in the next five years?
PM: I used to urge workers and some trade union leaders to have a broader view. Some unfortunately think that they can be indifferent to political developments.
They argue that they can focus on the so-called bread and butter issues and be apolitical.
This budget and the deteriorating material conditions of workers since the 2017 military coup have shown all that politics affects workers more than other sectors.
The budget reflects the general decadence in our governance. It is a budget that aims to loot from the poor to close the big gaps created by corruption in our national purse.
It seeks to milk workers dry to close the gap created by illicit smuggling of our natural resources.
If passed by Parliament in its current form, this budget will greatly reduce the disposable incomes of workers through the many usurious taxes.
It will also lead to many job loses as most businesses fail as a result of low demand and other adverse effects of the budget.
In the past, many will find cover in the informal economy, but this time around the budget has not spared this sector either.
The budget brings misery to the working class; it must be resisted by all workers.