Workers' strike over exorbitant fuel prices brings Zimbabwe to a halt

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The Independent Online

Zimbabwe shut down yesterday as workers heeded a call by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) to strike in protest at steep fuel price hikes imposed by President Robert Mugabe's regime.

Banks, factories and shops were closed across the country on the first of three days of protests. Lovemore Madhuku, an activist and law professor, said: "I think anyone can call a strike now and the whole of Zimbabwe will respond positively as long as it is anti-Mugabe. People are fed up."

Lovemore Matombo, president of the ZCTU, warned that the strike could become indefinite unless Mr Mugabe reversed last week's increases. The price of petrol increased by 210 per cent. A litre of petrol costs about 6,900 Zimbabwe dollars (about £5.40).

Mr Matombo said there was no way workers could afford the rises when the government had imposed a freeze on salary increases. Commuter bus fares have more than doubled in many areas. Workers said they had to spend their wages on transport or walk the long distances. The city of Bulawayo was virtually shut down as more than 80 per cent of businesses shut their doors.

The strike follows industrial action taken three weeks ago, called for by the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition party. Allegations of violence have been made against the MDC, resulting in a police crackdown in which more than 1,000 opposition activists were arrested across the country.

The ZCTU said tensions were running high after four senior labour officials were arrested and accused of "organising" the latest action. Soldiers had been deployed across townships on the eve of the strike, it said.

A spokesman for the congress claimed the soldiers were trying to organise supporters of Mr Mugabe's party, Zanu-PF, to engage in violence, and to blame it on the ZCTU.

The congress is closely affiliated to the MDC. The labour movement helped form the opposition party in 1999. Morgan Tsvangirai, a former secretary general of the congress, is now president of the MDC.Wellington Chibebe, Mr Tsvangirai's successor, feared further arrests of opposition supporters. "We can't stop them from arresting us but we are not scared because we are fighting for a cause – to defend the rights of the worker," he said.

Mr Mugabe declared the ZCTU strike illegal, and a police spokesman said those behind the action would be jailed.