Zimbabwe's newspapers depicted this week's massive strike as a potentially decisive standoff between the government and an increasingly strident opposition. The strike, endorsed by the country's main opposition party, is seen as more than an airing of workers' grievances; it is yet another sign that the Zimbabwean people are losing patience with a government that has thrown the former jewel of Africa into economic free-fall. Britain's Guardian called the strike and a similar walkout last month "a stinging vote of no-confidence by the workers in President Robert Mugabe's economic policies." Zimbabwe, once one of Africa's most prosperous and promising nations, is in economic ruin. Food shortages have left more than half the country's 11.3 million people hungry and dependent on outside aid. Inflation stands at 228 percent; unemployment at more than 60 percent.
The three-day work stoppage, called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, is a response to the government's recently imposed 200 percent fuel-price hike. The ZCTU is closely linked to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which led a nationwide walkout last month. The MDC's endorsement of this week's strike fueled political tension in the country, since Mugabe accuses the MDC of manipulating the public into staging such protests.
Zimbabwe's independent Financial Gazette reported that this week's strikes could be a preview of more intense showdowns to come. According to the paper, ZCTU's chairman said further confrontation is inevitable unless the government reverses the price increase. "This one is just a precursor of more serious things to come." He said the government would be wise to avoid joint ZCTU-MDC action: "The problem is that this government doesn't want to come out in the open and accept that it has failed because it believes it has a divine right to rule forever."
According to Zimbabwe's opposition Daily News, strike leaders say the fuel price hikes will break the average Zimbabwean. The ZCTU president said transport costs eat up 80 percent of workers' pay. "No doubt, there is no one in the government who is able to advance any meaningful argument on this madness. Even businesses are going to fold." Papers said the ZCTU-led strike is holding, with banks and many shops shuttered in Harare, the capital, and other major cities. The government has already arrested several ZCTU leaders.
According to the government-owned Herald, the Mugabe government blasted the union for abandoning talks and opting instead to strike. A government official said the ZCTU action is "motivated by a political agenda pursued by opposition elements."
The Herald published the transcript of an interview with Mugabe that aired this week on state television. Mugabe—whose customary defense is to rant against "the colonialists" of Britain and the West in general—dismissed criticism of his controversial land reform policy, which, in theory if not in practice, transfers commercial white-owned farms to black peasants. He blamed Zimbabwe's economic problems solely on droughts and on sanctions imposed by the West. He said, "The majority of people are a happy lot, in spite of the hardships they are going through." Zimbabweans are happy largely because "now they are sovereign over their resources, and the white man has been displaced by the black man." Mugabe scoffed at the West's condemnation of alleged human rights abuses and flaws in the March 2002 election that kept him in power. In response to criticism by State Department Africa head Walter Kansteiner, Mugabe told the interviewer, "Let him go hang; we stick by our own verdict—the election verdict and our principles. And once we accept that outsiders can decide who shall run our affairs then we are finished as Africans."
An op-ed in the opposition Daily News compared Mugabe's rule to the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Titled, "Violent regimes leave no option but war," the commentary said the coalition invasion of Iraq was "desperately needed ... for the good of the people" in order to remove "a heinous regime." It continued, "That is certainly the case I would put for removing the present regime in Zimbabwe." Britain's Independent reportedthat there is a new catchphrase among Zimbabwe's unemployed youth: "Mr. Bush, when are you coming to liberate us?"