Zimbabwean union leader talks of battle against injustice

“The situation resembles a war zone in a country that is not at war.”

The president of Zimbabwe’s Commercial Workers Union, Barbara Gwangwara-Tanyanyiwa, brought UNISON delegates to their feet on Wednesday, with an impassioned speech that described both the hardship and the defiance of her country’s workers.

“We are not going to suffer and die in silence,” she said. “We will peacefully protest until our cries have been heard.”

UNSON’s senior vice-president Josie Bird said that Ms Gwangwara-Tanyanyiwa was one of the most powerful international speakers she had ever heard at conference. And many in the hall seemed to agree.

In February this year Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam International all urged Zimbabwe’s President Mnangagwa to “urgently take concrete and effective action to address the deteriorating human rights situation and increasing risk of a humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe.”

Ms Gwangwara-Tanyanyiwa, who is also national secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) women’s advisory council, today spoke from the front line of that crisis.

She told delegates that the strong bond between UNISON and ZCTU was centred on the former’s solidarity, “first during our struggle for liberation, and in more recent years fighting against the denial of workers’ and human rights by successive governments.

“At the end of 2017, when our military rulers replaced president Mugabe with their own man, president “crocodile” Mnangagwa, many hoped for a new dispensation. Instead the denial of rights in our country has worsened.”

The Zimbabwean government’s “vicious economic policies are hitting workers hard”, she said, with many families unable to afford more than one basic meal a day, and items such as sanitary towels an “unaffordable luxury”.

At the same time, the crackdown on opposition to such policies and others has increased.

“The killing of innocent citizens, mass arrests, torture, harassment, imprisonment, anti-union discrimination, the denial of freedom of association and assembly and the use of live ammunition have all become the order of the day,” she said.

“The situation resembles a war zone in a country that is not at war.”

Among the incidents she described were:

  • Protests following the controversial 2018 general election, during which the army and police attacked demonstrators, killing six, and showered the ZCTU offices with bullets;
  • The arrest of 169 trade unionists over protests against income tax rises. The ZCTU president and secretary general were charged with treason but acquitted after international condemnation;
  • Further protests this January, against a rise in the cost of fuel, in which 17 people were killed, 90 injured and thousands arrested. The ZCTU officials were again charged with treason and are currently on bail.

The dignified Ms Gwangwara-Tanyanyiwa briefly lost control of her emotions when she commended those in civil society who have offered their solidarity to workers.

And again, when she told delegates: “Security forces are again using rape and torture as a weapon to silence and destroy our women leaders.

“But as we say in southern Africa: ‘When you strike a woman, you strike a rock’. And we will continue fighting until we are liberated.”

A symbol herself of such determination, Ms Gwangwara-Tanyanyiwa said she was proud that, in such a patriarchal society, she was one of three women union presidents in ZCTU.

“And there are many more strong women waiting to lead our unions.”

• During an afternoon of international debates, delegates also celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, praised the achievements of the country since – notably in health care and education – and agreed a motion that will see the union campaign for an end of the US government’s “cruel and illegal” blockade of the island.

They also approved a motion on “curbing corporate power”. In particular, the union intends to campaign for the realisation of the UN General Assembly’s proposed ‘binding treaty on transnational corporations with respect to human rights’.

Despite efforts by the EU, US and Australia to kill the treaty process, UNISON believes it represents a “once in a lifetime chance to secure binding international rules that start to turn the balance of power, at last, in favour of people over corporate profit.”