The leadership of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) were prevented from holding their General Council meeting yesterday, by Special Branch police who were acting under the highly controversial Public Order and Security Act (POSA). Under this Act, the "organiser of a public gathering shall give at least four days written notice of the holding of the gathering to the regulating authority for the area in which the gathering is to be held"(Section 24). A person found guilty of this offence is subject to one-year of imprisonment. Trade union meetings for "bona fide purposes" are supposed to be exempt from the application of the POSA. In this case the police deemed the meeting to be "political".
The General Council meeting is a regular meeting of ZCTU leadership, empowered to take decisions on issues of concern to the trade unions. Yesterdays meeting sought to address the post-election scenario, including the rise in politically-motivated beatings on workers. It also aimed to consider follow-up from the Stakeholders Peace Conference, organized by the ZCTU and held 16 February. This civil society conference resulted in a set of resolutions that identified the problems associated with the pre-election period, including the "deliberate disenfranchisement" of people considered sympathetic to the opposition, and outlined a set of demands that called for an end to state-sponsored violence and a repeal of repressive legislation. In the event the demands were "not being attended to satisfactorily", various actions would be taken, including mass stay-aways and public demonstrations for peace and justice.
ZCTU President, Lovemore Matombo, expressed serious concerns over the increasingly hostile environment for civil society, and for workers in particular. In the past, the ZCTU has always held its General Council meeting wherever and whenever it has pleased. The prevention of their meeting, and very nearly the press conference, are examples of one mechanism being used by the ruling party to stamp out any form of perceived opposition. The POSA does not mention the media, and whether press conferences are to be considered a "public gathering" requiring four days notice to the appropriate authorities.
The government, he stated, clearly intends to make the labour movement docile. But this will not happen, Matombo assured. "It is our right", enshrined in Zimbabwes Constitution, as well as in various United Nations conventions, that workers should be able to associate and express themselves freely. The workers, and Zimbabweans generally, he stated, need to stand up for their rights. When asked by journalists how Zimbabweans should do this, he said, "many forms of action". The ZCTU will advise on this, once it has found a way for its General Council to meet and discuss the issues.
This police intervention also illustrates the Zimbabwean governments selective application of the law. ZANU-PF members are associating everywhere, i.e. with "third chimurenga" rallies in the streets that have ended up more than once with violent or damaging actions against MDC properties. Alternatively, civil society and opposition party meetings are being interfered with at every turn. The ZCTU does not know how the Special Branch police learned of both the ZCTU General Council meeting, and the press conference that was to follow. Some analysts believe that the ZCTU has been infiltrated by government informants. This points to the ways in which police are being used to support a ruling party agenda. Citizens, now more than ever, need police protection, Matombo emphasised. "We hope that authorities will accept their professional responsibility to protect all Zimbabweans".
Before and after the announcement of the election results, the Zimbabwe Republic Police Commissioner could be widely heard on public media with his eerie reminder that Zimbabweans should accept the results, and not engage in violence or mass action and other public disturbances. If people contravene, they will witness the full and strong application of the law. The POSA, for example, makes it illegal to "disturb the peace, security and order of the public", which makes it virtually impossible to organize a rally or public march, and gives police the power to shoot demonstrators.
"We are becoming a hopeless nation", stated Matombo, reflecting a common sentiment amongst civic actors. The indicators for increasing repression and violence in the post-election period are all in place in Zimbabwe, illustrating that despite his questioned victory, President Mugabe still feels under threat.
International civil society, particularly in the SADC region, should move to support Zimbabwean civil society in whatever ways that ensure the democratic liberties of Zimbabweans are secured and upheld.