Zimbabwe grinds to standstill in general strike aimed at stopping farm seizures

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Zimbabwe came to a standstill yesterday as nearly three million workers staged a general strike expected to cost the southern African country's already shaky economy an estimated £15m.

Zimbabwe came to a standstill yesterday as nearly three million workers staged a general strike expected to cost the southern African country's already shaky economy an estimated £15m.

The strike, called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and supported by 50 key civic society groups, is intended to force President Robert Mugabe to end illegal occupations of white-owned farms, and the violence against opposition supporters.

The action was peaceful in the urban centres of Harare by late yesterday but attacks were reported on farms.

Independence war veterans, who have illegally occupied 1,500 white farms, yesterday stormed Parklands Farm in Norton, 20 miles west of Harare, armed with AK47 rifles, threatened two white workers, and chased reporters away.

A Commercial Farmers Union spokesman said veterans attacked worker compounds on farms in Mashonaland West and East provinces, and ordered people into the fields. Workers on most other commercial farms had left their compounds early and spent most of the day hiding.

Industries and shops were shut in all major urban centres of Harare, Mutare, Masvingo, Bulawayo and Gweru, leaving them almost as ghost towns.

"It is like a national day of mourning," said Peter Vhuma, a worker at a food outlet in Harare. "That is the best way to describe today."

Chris Mushambi, a local commercial bank employee, said: "This is a clear message to President Mugabe that he cannot continue running Zimbabwe like his tiny piggery project in Zvimba (the president's rural home)."

Some shops and factories which had opened earlier in the day closed later because of lack of business or workers.

"We are humbled by the people's response," said ZCTU acting president Isaac Matongo, who estimated numbers of strikers at 90 percent of Zimbabwe's three million workforce. "It's up to Mr Mugabe to listen. The choice is his."

A Ministry of Information spokesman said the strike was ill-advised and a flop as far as the government was concerned. "You can't call something that hurts our economy a success," the spokesman said in a phone interview, then slammed his phone down. Some civil servants reported for work after they were threatened with losing their jobs if they joined the strike. But many said they had reported for work merely "to decorate their offices", because they were not doing their usual work.

One bank analyst said: "One hopes wiser counsel ultimately prevails so the powers-that-be act on the socio-political problems facing the country and pluck the economy from virtual collapse."

The Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce, which groups players in the country's commercial sector and employs the largest number of workers, said the stayaway would worsen the record high inflation and interest rates and runaway joblessness and poverty. More worrying was the long-term cost to the country's tarnished investment image internationally, they said. The work stoppage and the standoff between the government, workers and employers would finish attempts to win back crucial international support for Zimbabwe's halting economic reforms.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank last year cut crucial balance of payment support for Zimbabwe because of failure to adhere to conditions, and Harare's involvement in the Congo war.

"There is always a price for this sort of action but the price of not reacting (by the government on the strikers' demands) might in the end be much higher," private economist John Robertson said.

Strike leaders said they also wanted to force Mr Mugabe to pull his troops out of cities and towns where they were deployed after the June 24-25 general election. They are accused of harassing civilians.