By Takura Zhangazha*
Being a labour union leader in Zimbabwe’s political-economic environment is not only a difficult decision to make in professional employment. It can also be a thankless task if it is not based on pro-worker values and principles. And before going any further, it would be important to immediately explain that most progressive labour union or workers’ committee leaders are most likely to be ideologically of the left. Even if they may not know it but their actions generally would point to it. Especially in Zimbabwe’s current neoliberal (free market) political economy framework.
I am mentioning this because the recent tiff between the Mnangagwa government and select Teachers’ Unions is a serious cause for concern. It is one in which the former is accusing the latter of collusion with the United Kingdom (UK) government to undermine the Zimbabwean teaching profession. This is a serious allegation especially because it is coming from a sitting president. One in which he promises to investigate the allegations to the full. Meaning that such an investigations soft target would be the unions.
The teachers unions in question, or at least those that have directly responded, namely the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) and the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ), have vehemently denied this allegation. They have responded in various statements shared on social media and reported in the mainstream press that this is merely a government ploy to digress from the legitimate labour rights concerns of their members in the teaching profession.
Just on the basis of the power imbalance between government and the unions, it would be evident that one should side with the unions. And seek to promote their labour rights within the context of Zimbabwean labour law as well as the rights accorded to them by the United Nations (UN) mandated International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions. This includes the rights of labour unions to freedom of association. Ideologically or otherwise. Even if they fall under the purview of the Public Service Commission(PSC), a point which I will come back to later.
But beyond this, we must also analyze the contextual reasons as to why this relationship has reached this particular crescendo between government and the teachers unions.
While the facts of the matter around this deterioration of relations are still to be presented, it is apparent that the government views the teachers unions as being functionally more political as opposed to focusing on strictly union matters. And in this the state is, according to Mnangagwa’s public statements, accusing the unions of being conduits of other countries’ foreign policy intentions and’s therefore interference in Zimbabwe’s sovereignty. And this can only mean at least two things. The Zimbabwean government is positioning these allegations as a riposte to UK foreign policy intentions after COP26. Either to indicate and strengthen or position ‘reengagement’ as the only option. Or to somewhat threaten a hardline approach within the context of UK’s Brexit and its need for business investment. Both historical and in the contemporary as regards agriculture and mining.
On the teachers unions’ side, one can only re-emphasise that they cross check the relevant labor law mandates that they have and function not on the basis of an allegation that they are an extension of any foreign country’s foreign policy. This includes, as is within their right, identifying regional, continental and global allies that they share progressive labour rights values with. It would be remiss of them to take a populist approach to this tiff with central government. Even if in the short term it helps galvanize their members.
But let me return to the issue of the PSC and the probable intentions of the state around civil servants. At a ceremony to launch busses for the transportation of government workers President Mnangagwa indicated that while he has their interests at heart, and in his own words, Regrettably, while as an employer government is implementing all these measures, it is disheartening that some employees as has now been revealed are working with foreign governments to undermine workplace harmony as well as national peace and security. Fortunately, my government has the requisite capacity to ensure workplace harmony and guarantee national peace and security,”
The likely intention of this is to ensure that government workers are fundamentally and probably technically (compliance) to the government of the day’s programmes and intentions. And that they are not perceived to undermine what would be considered ‘national peace and security’. Even if they are not in the security services.
And to add to this, the central government is well aware that the issue of US$ dollar bonuses for civil servants is likely to ameliorate angst with government workers of each and every one of its ministries. Teachers included.
What then becomes somewhat apparent is that Mnangagwa is very much aware of the political influence that Zimbabwe’s civil service has. Moreso the teaching profession. His intention is to approach it from a carrot and stick methodology. And with probable full knowledge that it was the teachers unions and professionals that were the backbone of the rapid expansion of opposition politics in Zimbabwe in 1999.
Finally, to all the progressive labour union leaders cdes out there, doing the hard work of representing workers’ rights, I salute you. Aluta continua!
Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)