Work stay-aways as a political strategy
Posted by CM on April 2, 2007
I have always had mixed feelings about work stay-aways like the latest one announced for this week. Being the owner of a business in Msasa for several years, I always respected them, even though it was difficult to gauge if they achieved anything. The workers rarely had any strong feelings in support of them either, although many of those who walked to Msasa from Epworth would be scrupulous about “staying away” because of what they said were pro-stay away “ushers” who prevented them from joining the usual caravans of people walking to walk. The intimidation seemed to get stronger with each stay-away.
As I recall, part of the problem was that few people really understood what was hoped to be achieved by the work stoppages. In this particular case I understand it is the very understandable and reasonable protest against inflation and wages that don’t come anywhere near keeping up with inflation of close to 1800%. Certainly, unofficially it is also a peaceful, generalized expression of extreme unhappiness with the overall management of the country.
I am more forgiving of this stay-away than I have been of previous ones because if successful, it is a dignified way for people to “speak” their unhappiness by with holding their labour, a respected form of protest in most countries. Any more active forms of protest are brutally put down, as we have graphically seen in the last few weeks. But such a mild form of protest can only appeal to the conscience of a ruling authority that has one. This is not the case in Zimbabwe. There have been reports during previous stay-aways of people being beaten up in their homes for not being up and about during business hours!
Perhaps as a letting off of steam it is better than nothing, but it is difficult to conceive of anything positive coming out of it even if it is “successful.” In the beginning stay-ways had some symbolic significance by showing the level of dis-enchantment of the people with their rulers, but this is now widely known by both those rulers and by the world.
Paradoxically, people may be beaten for staying away, but they are also beaten for being out on the streets protesting! It is not the nature of the protest action that invites a heavy-handed response, but daring to protest in any fashion. But I think the Mugabe government is past caring if people choose to stay at home than be at work. It is beyond being moved by the daily economic loss to the country of lost production and such technical arguments.
Also, if the stay-away was “successful” not just in terms of large numbers not going to work, but say by the extremely unlikely event of the government agreeing to inflation-pegged wage demands, what then? Have another stay-away next month when the new wages have been gobbled up by hyper-inflation?
If the stay-away achieves anything, even just any measurable symbolic victory, I would say “more power to you.” Given the pressure-cooker that Zimbabwe is today, any ventilating in which people are not abused or killed is welcome. In normal countries it would be considered ordinary, normal to have a raucous, stone-throwing demonstration, so a mild form of protest like a work stoppage is not much to ask for, although given the taste for brutality we have seen in Zimbabwe, I could be proven wrong.
But the biggest danger of these symbolic gestures is that when they repeatedly fail to achieve anything, people become more disillusioned and less inclined to participate in any future actions.