By Stella Mapenzauswa
HARARE- Police swiftly quashed a labour union protest in Zimbabwe’s capital on Wednesday, seizing at least 15 demonstrators and chasing others through the streets in a show of force by President Robert Mugabe’s government.
Officers in riot helmets and equipped with batons and teargas canisters swooped on Harare’s central business district and grabbed some 15 protesters, including top leaders of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), witnesses said.
“We have been arrested. There are about 15 of us. We are now at Matapi police station,” ZCTU President Lovemore Matombo told Reuters by mobile telephone, adding that ZCTU Secretary General Wellington Chibebe had also been arrested.
Matombo said he believed there had been more arrests, but that he had no further immediate information.
A heavy police presence kept onlookers well away from the protest march, which the ZCTU said was aimed at highlighting poor wages, high taxes and lack of access to anti-retroviral drugs to fight HIV/AIDS.
Earlier, a number of youths loyal to Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF and used to intimidate workers in previous protests could be seen on the main road to parliament, while police barred motorists from driving through the area.
The ZCTU called demonstrations in urban centres, but scaled them down to 2-hour marches from an earlier proposed one-day national strike over fears that expectations of a heavy state reaction might keep workers at home.
Unions say workers have borne the brunt of a deepening economic crisis widely blamed on Mugabe’s government and manifested in chronic shortages of food, fuel, foreign currency and triple digit inflation.
The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has its roots in the ZCTU and is the biggest challenge to Mugabe’s 26-year rule, urged workers to come out in large numbers for the march and the security forces to show restraint.
Two weeks ago Tsvangirai and his top lieutenants marched to parliament to press demands for a new constitution to replace one viewed as entrenching Mugabe’s rule, and to call for laws that provide for “free and fair” elections.
A rival labour federation aligned to Mugabe’s ZANU-PF urged workers to boycott Wednesday’s demonstration, echoing government charges that the ZCTU was using it as “a smokescreen” to pursue an opposition political agenda.
“The real agenda is … meant to further the MDC cause for regime change,” the group said in a statement.
Mugabe’s government has said while worker demands were reasonable, the protests were unnecessary because unions could discuss their issues under an existing forum that groups representatives of government, industry and labour. The ZCTU says the forum has proved a waste of time.
Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, denies responsibility for Zimbabwe’s economic woes. He dismisses his local opponents as puppets of Western countries he says are determined to bring down his government over its seizure of white owned commercial farms for blacks. — Reuter