First mass protest at Mugabe is a failure

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The Independent Online

The first day of a national strike in Zimbabwe, called to protest against the political harassment of trade unionists, failed to garner mass support yesterday owing to poor planning by organisers.

The Zimbabwe trades union federation (ZCTU) expressed disappointment with the response to its stay-away call, which was the first challenge to President Robert Mugabe since his disputed re-election last week.

The strike call appeared to be ignored by many shopkeepers across the country. But the ZCTU vowed to continue the protest which is due to end tomorrow. "The strike stands, despite the fact that businesses that had closed in the morning are now open," said the federation's secretary general, Wellington Chibebe.

ZCTU members, widely seen as opposed to President Robert Mugabe, have been beaten and harassed since his re-election last week, and police have tried to monitor closed executive meetings, say union officials. Mr Chibebe said: "We have received reports of people being taken away from their homes by the police ... [and] war veterans are taking down the names of those not at work."

The government responded to the strike call by declaring it illegal and sending police to strategic areas as a deterrent.

About 55 per cent of businesses, including the country's banks, were affected in the morning, falling to about 30 per cent in the afternoon.

The federation has organised successful strikes before but the failure of the latest one was attributed to poor planning.

The deputy secretary-general of the ZCTU, Collin Gwiyo, blamed the poor participation in the strike on harsh new security laws that made it difficult to mobilise workers.

"People should appreciate that times are changing," he said. "In the past there was no Public Order and Security Act. If we had done it the old way, we would have had every one of our activists arrested."

The Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) said yesterday that 10 farm workers had been taken to hospital after being beaten by illegal settlers on a property near Karoi, 150 miles south-west of Harare. The CFU also said 50 farmers had been illegally evicted from their properties, with some given a few hours' notice, by ruling party militias since the election. A further 66 farmers have been arrested in the last 10 days.

An MDC activist, Ernest Gatsi, who was beaten by ruling Zanu-PF militias died in hospital on Tuesday, bringing to eight the number of opposition supporters killed in political violence in the aftermath of Zimbabwe's election.

Hopes are rising, however, that the mounting international pressure on President Mugabe will eventually force the 78-year-old leader to stop the repression of political opponents and to give in to opposition demands for a re-run of the disputed poll.

Professor Elphas Mukonoweshuro, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe, said: "At some stage he will have to give in. He cannot expect to survive in isolation forever."

But analysts believe the Commonwealth decision to suspend Zimbabwe for one year needs to be backed by more targeted sanctions.