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ZCTU president reflects on five years at the helm of labour body

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ZIMBABWE Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) president Peter Mutasa’s five-year term at the helm of the labour movement is coming to an end next month.

The NewsHawks (NH) caught up with the outgoing Mutasa, who reflected on his term. He also spoke about issues affecting workers, his suspected poisoning and state-sponsored brutality. Below are excerpts of the interview:

NH: How is the going in the labour movement?

PM: Like many Zimbabweans, we are fighting for survival. The environment is terrible for the labour movement.

NH: I understand that your five-year term of office as leader of the ZCTU is ending in a month’s time. When is the next congress and what is the theme?

 PM: Yes, my torturous journey is, indeed, coming to an end. We are holding our congress from 26 to 27 October this year. The general council is yet to agree on the theme. As usual, it will be a theme that expresses the struggles of workers and must inspire us to fight back against all forms of repression and exploitation.

NH: Does the ZCTU constitution allow for a second term and, if so, will you be running for re-election?

PM: Yes, the ZCTU constitution allows for a second term. I have been thinking about this for some time. It is not a decision I can make on my own. Firstly, I am considering my health, after poisoning that almost took my life last year, which l believe was state-engineered. I will rely on medical advice on whether I should carry on.

Secondly I am also consulting my family. Everyone in my family suffered the pains of staying with someone wrongfully regarded as an enemy of the state. Remember my nephew was abducted and seriously tortured in 2019. My son, whom they wanted, managed to run away and hid. My house was broken into and everyone had to stay away from home for some time. They threatened my family with bullets and were always tracking our movements.

They threatened to rape our daughters. In short, the state agents did many bad things to my family. I would therefore need the family consent to continue, although they have always understood the costs and burden of standing up for workers in Zimbabwe.

Then for trade unionists with ideological grounding, no one put himself up for election. We don’t believe in canvassing for positions, the workers and fellow comrades should nominate you for a position.

A number of comrades and unions have approached me and put forward their desire to nominate me for re-election. I have provisionally accepted the offer subject to personal and family considerations.

NH: How do you see your chances of re-election?

PM: As a trade union leader in a very polarised political environment like Zimbabwe, you can never please all. The majority of workers and comrades think I eloquently and forcefully put forward their issues, both locally and on the international stage.

They would like me to continue the fight against both state repression and exploitation by capital. However, some may not be happy, for political reasons. They regarded me as standing against the government and may not want me to continue.

The state itself has been churning out a lot of propaganda against me and the ZCTU secretary-general, using state and other media. We have been labelled terrorists, enemies of the state and regime change agents.

Sadly, some comrades may have been swayed by such vile propaganda. However, without state interference and manipulation of our processes, I think I stand a good chance to win a second term. The majority of workers understand their struggle.

NH: What lessons have you drawn from the last five years as ZCTU president? PM: Leading ZCTU has been a great honour and I have learnt a lot for the past five years. I learnt that the biggest impediment to development, equality, equity, justice and peace in this country is politics.

No matter how workers and trade unions may try to utilise collective bargaining and other labour market tools to improve conditions of workers, without addressing the political question all comes to naught.

This is a big lesson that I learnt through engaging full-time in the labour market. Workers and trade unions must quickly understand this and courageously deal with this monster. Morgan Tsvangirai (late former ZCTU leader, who subsequently became MDC president) and his team clearly understood this, hence the route they took.

We may have different views about whether it succeeded, but there cannot be debate about whether trade unions must seriously seek to address the political question. That makes civic and political education an important objective for trade unions. I also learnt that while we attained Independence, we still have structural social and economic challenges that will prevent the majority of working class families from attaining social justice.

Workers in Zimbabwe are still in bondage and we need the ideological clarity and courage of the late trade union fighters like Benjamin Burombo, Joshua Nkomo (late former vice-president), Tsvangirai and others. Our struggle must be understood as a struggle for total freedom, not some wage increases here and there; that is not enough.

The other lesson I drew from my experience is that, with collective effort, workers can easily shake off the repressive and exploitative systems of the state and capital. My experiences in Hwange, with the demonstrating women and different ZCTU demonstrations, showed me that workers still have the power. We just have to find ways of organising ourselves and collectively push for freedom.

I also learnt the beauty of diversity and that if used correctly it can change this world. The trade union movement has different people with different views and skills that can be harnessed for collective good.

NH: During your tenure as president, there were allegations that you heavily criticised the government even in times when good policies for citizens were implemented. What is your take on this?

PT: My humble challenge to those who lay those charges against me is simple. They must show us those policies we challenged, but then ended up benefiting workers or citizens. We challenged introduction of bond notes and some even in unions lambasted us. Now where are we? It was a heist and we knew it.

We challenged corruption at Nssa (National Social Security Authority) and, look, pensioners are wallowing in poverty. We challenged the Covid-19 response, especially the distribution of social transfers, look what happened, the money didn’t reach the poor but ended up with politicians.

We challenged the Finance minister Mthuli Ncube’s austerity measures and, now, half the population is in extreme poverty. We were arrested for challenging increased taxes and basic goods price increases, now the majority can’t even buy bread. We made noise against state capture, especially the Zupco monopoly.

Besides benefiting politically exposed persons, citizens are suffering now. So those who think we were wrong must show us how those policies assisted the poor citizens and workers. We warned against neo-colonialism by China and many said we are agents of the West. Now even traditional leaders are complaining about the pillaging of our natural resources for a song.

NH: Some of your critics believe that you were more of opposition political activists than labour leaders. What is your take?

PM: Together with other comrades, we were arrested for demanding better salaries, reduction in taxes, reduction in cost of living and fighting against corruption. Are these opposition issues? If so, then I am guilty as charged. We have always been raising our voices on behalf of workers and defending workers’ rights.

Unfortunately, our problems as workers are created by politicians, the government. In addressing our problems we have to address those political decisions. At times that is viewed as opposition to the government. The government has impoverished many sectors of the society through its policies. As a result, all are demanding justice and equity from it and that doesn’t make those citizens opposition politicians.

We are just citizens demanding our rights to fair wages, education, housing and other socio-economic constitutional rights.

 NH: Would you share with us your best and worst moments at ZCTU president?

PM: I had a good time, learning a lot from comrades. Most of my moments within ZCTU leadership were interesting. I would, however, single out the Hwange demonstrations that lasted over three months.

It was organically organised by Hwange women and we only came in to support and amplify their voices. It was wonderful to learn from organic intellectuals, activists without organisations or budgets fighting for their rights. I would at time feel my tears flowing down my eyes hearing the stories of the community leaders and why they had to fight for their husbands’ salaries. The worst moments have been times we had to bury our comrades. We lost trade union veterans and promising young cadres.

NH: What do you think about the state you are leaving the labour fraternity in?

PM: Am both happy and anxious about the state l am leaving the trade union in. I am happy that despite the push by the state to capture or coopt the ZCTU, we defended its independence without fearing the risk to our lives and those of our families. Some of us were enticed and promised riches if we compromised the independence of the federation, but we rejected such offers. So I’m happy we are giving another generation of leaders an uncompromised federation.

I’m also happy we have developed a good number of young leaders who can defend the movement. I am anxious, though, because the state is unrelenting in its quest to capture the unions.

I put my trust in the ability of trade unionists to continue defending our movement that was built and defended by the blood and sweat of our forebears. I am also anxious because, today, the labour movement is weak financially and in terms of numbers. We no longer have the ZCTU of the 1990s. We face many job losses, casualisation of labour and the trade union membership has dwindled. My hope is that we will get labour leaders who will fight and come up with innovatives measures to address these problems.

NH: Your assumption of office coincided with the last kicks of former president Robert Mugabe’s administration and the coming on board of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s “second republic” administration. How do you compare the two in light of labour rights?

PM: Those in government and their sympathisers who accuse us of supporting the opposition do not state that we also supported the ouster of former late president Robert Mugabe. We were hoping for better, but now it has turned out we were wrong.

Mugabe was bad to workers, but the current administration has made it clear for all to see that it is worse. We have seen more draconian actions against workers. The nurses and doctors’ strikes showed us that the current administration is worse.

The teachers’ incapacitation also shows how the current administration looks down upon workers and is not concerned about the deplorable situation of workers. Most workers are wallowing in poverty and compared with the last days of Mugabe, every worker sees that the current administration is worse.

Each time we tried to strike, workers were beaten and arrested. We also witnessed what we used to see during the Mugabe era sparingly is now being done with more zeal and frequency. Many trade union cadres and civil society activists have been abducted and tortured during this administration. My nephew suffered that fate simply because I am a trade unionist. It is difficult to make a different judgement. We are fighting against a system and the removal of Mugabe has not assisted us, the situation is worse now.

NH: A raft of economic policies, some of which have been commended by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have been implemented by the government to save the economy. Do you think these policies are serving the interests of workers?

PM: lt appears that since the Esap (Economic Structural Adjustment Programme) era in the ‘90s, the government has not learnt anything. It is not about pleasing the IMF and World Bank. Our economy must serve the citizens.

We have half of the population in extreme poverty, salaries and pensions have been severely eroded. Pensions and wages are not sufficient to buy a monthly basket of food only. We are facing job losses due to depressed domestic aggregate demand.

We are only saved by diaspora remittances for now. We have opened up our whole country for plunder, as we are celebrating few gains from an extractive madness. We are an economy that has no mortgages or hire purchases because of the volatility of the currency. We have become a model of what UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) conceptualised as a nation that can have economic growth with negative outcomes. We have jobless growth, without any meaningful decent jobs being created. It is ruthless growth with deepening inequalities.

The majority is failing to afford food, while a few connected are building mansions. We are also witnessing futureless growth based on plunder of our natural resources without commensurate export income and disregarding environmental and financial needs of the future generations.

We need a new trajectory, a new economy that is inclusive, serves all and based on an agreed social contract. This “Zimbabwe is open for business” and “Austerity for prosperity” economic direction has been bad for workers and citizens. We need a new social contract.

NH: Your last word to government, business and working class?

PM: My last word to the government is that they are failing workers and our beautiful nation.

Many of the people in the government and ruling party fought for the liberation of this country. I want them to introspect and revisit the values and ethos of the struggle. Was it not about labour justice and egalitarianism (gutsaruzhinji)?

Why are working conditions resembling colonial conditions? Was is not about land to the people? Why are citizens being displaced from their ancestral lands in an independent Zimbabwe? Everyone who supported those in government during the struggle is complaining, labour, peasants, war veterans and students.

This shows that there is something that has gone terribly wrong and soon people will once again seek to liberate themselves. The ruling elites must stop taking people for granted and quickly grant people freedom, justice, equality and prosperity.

For business, I had good working relationships with many business representatives. I, however, witnessed that, they at times praise bad policies and urge policymakers to continue with these policies. As long as they benefit, even at the expense of the entire nation, some businesspeople don’t mind.

In secret, some point out the bad. My word is that we all must speak up against bad policies and practices in our country without fear or favor for us to save our nation. Again, most businesses are enjoying exploiting workers and supporting bad labour laws and policies for their short-term benefit. I warn businesses that this current situation where majority workers and citizens are deep in poverty earning pathetic salaries is not sustainable. In the long run everyone is going to suffer serious losses as we witnessed in 2008.

It is a zero sum game and we all have a responsibility to ensure that we push for a new direction. It is appalling that big corporates, some owned by very respected rich persons, are treating workers with disdain.

For the workers of Zimbabwe, thank you for bestowing such an honour upon me. Leading the labour movement has been a great honour and responsibility. We tried our best under a difficult environment. If I come back, we will do much more to liberate ourselves from the bondage we are thrust in by those in political power and in business. If l don’t, let’s continue, for the march is not ended. I promise to continue pushing for labour justice even in other capacities in support of the movement.

Workers of Zimbabwe, we need to be very clear about our problems. We cannot afford the fallacy that we must be indifferent to politics. Political decisions are what has impoverished and put us in misery. We therefore need to stand up and speak up against such political decisions and players. The struggle is real, we must continue fighting back against repression and neo-liberalism. Register to vote and ensure all around you are registered. It is an important civic duty. Vote wisely, holding the ballot but thinking about your pathetic salaries. Aluta continua!

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