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Crackdown fears haunt union protests in Zim

Zimbabwe trade unions are scaling down their threats for major anti-government protests this week, a move analysts say acknowledges that fears of a brutal state response may keep many people at home.

President Robert Mugabe has warned his forces will not hesitate to shoot opponents who take to the streets, and on Sunday the government said security agents were ready to crush the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) protests.

The ZCTU announced early this month it planned countrywide demonstrations on Wednesday to protest against poor wages, high taxes and workers’ lack of access to antiretroviral drugs to fight HIV/Aids, which kills an estimated 3 000 people each week.

But analysts say the opposition-allied unions have since quietly scaled back the protest plan, scrapping a proposed one-day national strike in favour of just two hours of street marches in various places around the country.

Lovemore Madhuku, chairperson of political pressure group National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), said even small union protests could keep the focus on Zimbabwe’s deepening political and economic crisis, which critics blame squarely on Mugabe.

”Even if the turnout is not that massive because of fears of police brutality, what is important is the will to engage and confront this regime,” he said.

Zimbabwe is battling shortages of foreign exchange, fuel and food along with skyrocketing unemployment and an inflation rate close to 1 000%, the highest in the world.

The government has kept its security forces on high alert for months over feared protests, and critics say it has used intimidation and arrests to ensure nothing materialises.

John Makumbe, a political commentator and fierce Mugabe critic, said the ZCTU was bound to score an important political point against the government even if its marches attract only small numbers around the country.

”By drawing out the government, they are dramatising the Zimbabwe crisis to the world and fuelling the political debate about this government at home,” he said.

”These kind of peaceful demonstrations are allowed almost everywhere in the world else except in dictatorships, and if the government is going to be vicious, then it will keep losing support both at home and abroad,” Makumbe said.

Mugabe (82), in power since Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain, has kept opponents of his 26-year-old rule in check through tough security laws barring protests without approval.

On Monday, the unions ran newspaper ads insisting that their leaders would press on with the protests code-named ”We have Suffered” or Tatambura in the local Shona language.

”Eighty percent of Zimbabweans are living in poverty because workers’ ‘take home’ salaries cannot even take them home,” they said. ”Now is the time to say no.” — Reuters

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