May Day: A sad remnant of bygone age

HARARE - In the years subsequent to Zimbabwe’s independence up to the turn of the millennium, hundreds of thousands of workers rallied by their vociferous unions would take out a few hours from their busy holiday schedules on May 1 to traipse the usual, well-trodden marching routes.

Flags, placards and banners were waved, slogans chanted, anger vented, police heckled, speeches made… and then everyone went home, or to the bars to reflect over the highlights of the day or drown their sorrows and celebrate their bit of fortunes.

Considered a labour highlight across the world for centuries, the Workers’ Day, otherwise popularly known as the May Day or Labour Day is a celebration of those who toil for long hours to create wealth for others.

Zimbabwe will tomorrow join the rest of the world in commemorating Workers’ Day.

While it is usually marked through pomp and fanfare but in Zimbabwe, its gloss has worn off; leaving many to ask just what has gone so terribly wrong?

This year, as every before, Zimbabwe will join the rest of the world in commemorating May Day tomorrow, with labour bodies, as per custom, convening at various stadia around the country.

But the numbers the gatherings used to attract have drastically fallen and only a handful bothered to join the commemorations.

And in the intervening period, government — now the single largest employer in the country following the closure of many companies — has of late attempted to hijack the day by purporting to stage celebrations when in fact it has been lampooned time and again for tramping upon its very workers.

Testimony to this is the current impasse government has with thousands of its employees in the form of nurses who went on an industrial strike protesting against poor working conditions and salaries and ended up getting fired en-masse.

They are now challenging their mass sacking at the courts and, as they say, matters pending in courts are not subject to discussion elsewhere, including on newspaper pages.

The main attraction, as usual, would be at Gwanzura Stadium where the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), Zimbabwe’s biggest labour movement, will hold its main commemorations.

But unlike in the past where multitudes would fill up the small football stadium, a few hundreds of people are set to pitch up while the silent majority would be at home — no doubt to the government’s eternal gratification.

For the many that are not in any form of employment, the daily struggles of life as vendors and hustlers would continue.

It would be very safe to predict that as the ZCTU marchers shall go along their way they could draw police scrutiny.

But, apart from some isolated moments of tension, May 1 will be, it must be said, a day to be quickly forgotten.

A damp squib of an affair serves merely as a reminder of the growing impotence of organised (or perhaps better put, disorganised) labour.

With endless dole queues, derelict factories, unoccupied business premises and huge industrial establishments that are either turning into white elephants or are being taken over by churches, the very few workers still remaining in this treacherous economy, are autonomous, highly disposable individuals toiling away in a fast-crumbling private sector without any sense whatsoever of belonging to any particular class or grouping.

Public trust in trade unions is at an all-time low partly due to sharp divisions within labour organisations, itself a parallel of the country’s scandal-hit political parties, a situation which suggests that the unions and parties are generally viewed as much a part of the problem as a solution to it.

And with government and business recently knitting up loose ends to labour laws to shield themselves from workers’ demands, prospects for the Zimbabwean proletariat are slim; very slim.

The reforms will, ideally, rapidly form pools of surplus through doing away with perceived idle labour, tilting the balance of power even more in favour of capital and against labour.

Certainly, the gloomy days are nigh.

At hand, in fact!

Solutions are unlikely to be found through the ballot box either.

Experience in the recent past has shown that mainstream political parties are offering barely distinguishable policies or ideologies and are run by virtually identical cliques of politicians.

For a nation whose economy has virtually collapsed, the few people still in employment have nothing to celebrate or commemorate.

To make matters worse, those in control of some of the surviving businesses are well connected individuals with the State’s full firepower at their disposal.

These know fully well that there is nothing, currently, that can be done to stop them even if they ill-treat their employees.

Waving a few flags, chanting a few slogans, heckling a few police officers is not going to do it, but still, the questions is: what will?

Zimbabwe is heavily conflicted when it comes to the meaning of Labour Day.

A number of a new disaffected generation of workers is not sure about the original purpose of Labour Day.

Traditionally, there have been two major labour bodies, the Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions (ZFTU) and the ZCTU that are sharply divided on political lines, the former being sympathetic to the ruling party and the latter on the other extreme end.

Since the turn of the millennium, however, there have been more schisms within the groups, most notably the clashes that divided ZCTU a few years ago.

While the Peter Mutasa-led ZCTU, considered to be the major one, will hold its celebrations at the traditional venue, Gwanzura Stadium, its other faction, branding itself as “Concerned affiliates” will converge elsewhere, its proponents are likely to spend the day attacking their erstwhile colleagues.

This is how far these organs have alienated themselves from the workers.

Government and business, now having forged some strange partnership, are happy with weak trade unionism.

Workers have over the years shown readiness to align themselves with political parties, which means they depend largely on the swing of the political pendulum to go the way they want.

This, observers say, is the reason why ZCTU has lost its old allure — a stark reflection of the situation in the MDC, the main opposition party it conceived and is aligned to.

The party has seen its fortunes take a knock recently, although the emergency of stirrer Nelson Chamisa at its helm appears to have given it some impetus.

ZFTU reflects the politics in Zanu PF, working to maintain the status quo.

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