A lion’s roar that became a cat’s meow: The history of Zimbabwe’s trade unions

Zimbabwe ZCTU

When Godfrey Huggins was prime minister of Southern Rhodesia between 1933 and 1953, he made sure black workers would not be allowed to organise as unions.

His reasons:  “The European in this country can be likened to an island of white in a sea of black. Is the native to be allowed to erode away the shores and gradually attack the highlands? To permit this would mean that the leaven of civilization would be removed from the country…”

The unions did eventually provide the breeding ground for nationalists that indeed attacked Huggins’ white “highlands”, led by the likes of Joshua Nkomo and Benjamin Burombo. Decades later, unions were to be a nursery for those that would oppose the post-Independence government.

Today, the modern union is nowhere near those levels; starved of membership by rising employment and showing none of the independent ideological clarity of its early luminaries.

Workers started unionising early in the 1900s, but it was not until the 1920s that the first organised structures began to take shape. The Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU), led by Robert Sambo, was set up in 1927 by migrant workers encouraged by the powerful unions of South Africa. When the depression hit in the 1930s, the union was decimated as workers lost jobs, just as has happened in Zimbabwe over the past two decades.

The 1945 railway workers’ strike and the general strikes of 1948 forced Huggins to climb down and finally allow black workers to organise. The Bulawayo Federation of African Workers’ Union and the African Workers’ Voice Association were key unions in the 1940s.

“Each time I want to fight for African rights I use only one hand – because the other hand is busy trying to keep away Africans who are fighting me.”

Benjamin Burombo

Among those early unionists was Benjamin Burombo, a tall shop owner in the railway compound renowned for his radical oratory. Burombo founded the British African National Voice Association, teaching himself labour law despite having had no real formal education.

Burombo, with the likes of Tennyson Hlabangana and Thomson Samkange, led strikes in 1948 that forced the settler regime to buckle on low wages under the Native Labour Board. Burombo also challenged clauses in the Native Land Husbandry Bill, used by “native commissioners” against blacks.

He overcame resistance by those for whom he fought, famously despairing: “Each time I want to fight for African rights I use only one hand – because the other hand is busy trying to keep away Africans who are fighting me.”

In 1954, the Southern Rhodesia Trade Union Congress was formed, paving the way for the formation of one of the earliest nationalist movement in Rhodesia, the African National Congress. Its leaders, among them Nkomo, were drawn from the unions.

Joshua Nkomo, a leader of early unions

1980: Independent, troublesome workers

Within months Independence in 1980, workers became restless, making Robert Mugabe’s first year as Prime Minister a nightmare.

Over 16 000 workers in 46 companies went on strike, demanding better pay.  Between March and June 1980, at least 172 000 working days were lost to strikes, according to an ILO paper. There were up to 200 strikes between 1980 and 1981.

Frustrated, the new government lashed out. In May 1980, the then Minister of Labour, Kumbirai Kangai, sent in the police to break up striking transport workers. He warned: “I will crack my whip if they do not go back to work.”

Mugabe said the workers were abusing Independence, saying: “Democracy is never mob rule.”

In October 1981, striking teachers and nurses in Harare were detained, 200 were suspended and 80 teachers were fired.

If we can’t beat them, let them join us

The Mugabe administration decided the best way was to co-opt the unions. Unions were divided, and this provided a chance. The government forged a united federation out of various unions. Calling it the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), Mugabe stuffed it with party loyalists. Among them were Albert Mugabe, Mugabe’s own half-brother, and Alfred Makwarimba, who was to lead an openly pro-Zanu-PF federation decades later.

ZCTU helped government quell unrest. A press article that year quoted the ZCTU’s Albert Mugabe as saying: “This country needs a disciplined work force to encourage development. Strikes do more harm than good. There are some bad eggs in the union movement. We will watch them closely.”

That way, unions helped government suppress workers’ rights.

From 1985: Tsvangirai’s new labour

A young Morgan Tsvangirai: He successfully steered ZCTU away from government control

This cosy arrangement between unions and the government began to unravel years after a new crop of leaders emerged in the late 1980s. Among them was Morgan Tsvangirai from the Associated Mineworkers of Zimbabwe and Gibson Sibanda from the Railways Union.

The ZCTU had remained loyal to the government, with Mugabe sitting side by side with labour leaders at Workers’ Day celebrations. However, the unions became disillusioned as government turned to free market policies, which included labour laws that made it easier for employers to fire workers.

By the 1990s, the divisions were wide as the government veered right towards the IMF and the World Bank. On May Day 1991, workers unfurled banners reading, “Employers liberated, workers sacrificed” and “Are we going to make 1991 the Year of the World Bank Storm?” 

In 1989, Tsvangirai was detained for supporting student protests.

The 1990s standoff

The 1990s saw more strikes as workers protested the effects of government’s free market policies, such as the IMF-backed Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP), which cut social spending and, like today, slashed subsidies to allow prices to rise.

A three-week strike by over 200 000 civil servants in 1996 showed the broken relations between labour and government. There were over 230 separate strikes in 1997 alone.

War veterans’ leader Chenjerai Hunzvi led protests to pressure Mugabe to pay gratuities

The year 1997 was a major turning point. The government, cornered by war veterans, announced a new tax to raise gratuities for over 50 000 ex-fighters.  The ZCTU rallied nationwide protests on December 9, forcing government to drop the tax.

A month later, a bread price hike sparked riots. The army was deployed and at least eight people were shot and killed.

In 1998, the ZCTU held “stay-aways” against high taxes and the rising prices. However, big companies, who had initially given quiet approval to the action, became uneasy over the impact of the strikes on their businesses.

[Click here to read our special report on how a country lost its currency]

A workers’ party?

As Tsvangirai gave his speech at a Workers’ Day rally at Rufaro Stadium in 1997, a group led by Munyaradzi Gwisai, then head of the local chapter of the International Socialist Organisation, loudly chanted: “Workers’ party now! Workers’ party now!”

In February 1999, the ZCTU held a “National Working People’s Convention”, which led to the formation of the MDC that September.

However, for leftist radicals like Gwisai, this was not the party they really wanted. They had hoped for a left-leaning movement. Gwisai was expelled in 2002 for supporting the ZANU PF-led land reform and accusing party leaders of selling out to “neo-liberals” and big business.

“Educated civic elites, supported by the white farmers, NGOs and governments, used their money and expertise to hijack MDC, even if a few trade union leaders remained at the top,” Gwisai was to later write.

But the MDC continued to organise around the poor urban worker, who continued to provide the base of opposition support.

Labour’s decline

By the mid-2000s, the economic crisis under ZANU-PF rule had decimated the formal workforce on which the unions depended for membership. The unions were also worn down by years of attacks and disruption by government.

Internally, power struggles made things even worse. In 2016, the ZCTU was crippled by divisions as Lovemore Matombo and George Nkiwane fought for control. A year earlier, the ZCTU had lost some credibility among workers after a feeble response to the Zuva court ruling that made over 6000 jobless.

In January 2019, the ZCTU called for protests over fuel price hikes, drawing a brutal military crackdown in which many were shot and killed by the army. Under Peter Mutasa, the ZCTU was barely recognisable from its left roots. It became just one of the many NGOs with more donor proposals than visible ideologies.

With the bulk of workers now self-employed, and bogged down by their own power struggles and poor leadership, today’s unions are nowhere near the movements that gave us Burombo, Nkomo or Tsvangirai.

In a 2002 paper on the state of the unions, Gwisai wrote: “The roar of the 1997 lion had, by March 2002, been reduced to less than a kitten’s meow”.