Zimbabwe: Mass action off to slow start

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

HARARE, 9 June (IRIN) - A two-day stayaway called by the opposition and civil society groups in Zimbabwe has had a slow start, according to reports from the capital, Harare, and the second city, Bulawayo.

One person was arrested in Harare on Thursday for distributing fliers - part of the mass action campaign called by the Broad Alliance, which includes the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), an NGO, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and civil society groups.

The MDC also boycotted the opening of parliament on Thursday. The party said it was disturbed by the government's move to raze people's informal homes without offering them alternative accommodation. The destruction of flea markets and stalls, the only source of income for many people, was also condemned by the MDC.

The government campaign, endorsed by President Robert Mugabe, is aimed at rooting out criminal elements operating in the burgeoning parallel market. Thousands of people have been arrested and left homeless.

Lovemore Madhuku, leader of the Broad Alliance and chairman of the NCA, said the first day of the planned two-day stayaway was a success. However, by midday it appeared that most people in Harare did not heed the call to stay home.

Most shops and offices remained open and transport operators were ferrying commuters to their workplaces as usual; long queues of people waited to travel into town, but the buses failed to cope due to a crippling shortage of fuel.

Although there was minimal police presence in the city centre, there were numerous roadblocks manned by police along roads to the central business district.

In anticipation of disturbances, police water cannons were deployed at strategic positions outside the city, while riot squads were on high alert at Cranborne Barracks, about 10 km east of the capital.

Some parents decided not to send their children to school as they feared an outbreak of violence.

"Even though my wife and I reported for work, we have informed the authorities at my child's school that she will not be coming because there is a possibility that the situation could turn nasty," said Ephraim Masamba, a banker in Harare.

He said he had decided to go to work because he feared losing his job, since his employers had not officially given permission for staff to stay at home. "But besides there being no word from our bosses, I think the stayaway was poorly organised because we heard about it through rumour."

However, Madhuku insisted that the mass stayaway had been a success so far.

"Most people heeded the call to stay away - our observation is that even though shops and other businesses were open, the majority of the people did not turn up for work. Not many people were observed in queues to go to work, as compared to other days, meaning that they had decided to stay at home," said Madhuku.

In Bulawayo it was business as usual, with most retail shops and industries open, and commuter operators were also at work, despite the acute shortage of fuel.

Shoppers who spoke to IRIN said they were too concerned with the day-to-day issues of survival to engage in any form of antigovernment protest; actions such as the stayaway had become irrelevant to them.

Businesspeople, particularly small-scale ones, claimed they had been threatened by members of the state's Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) yesterday, and officials from the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority warned them that if they failed to open their businesses, their licenses would be revoked.

"We are wholly concerned about the state of affairs in the country, but there is nothing one can do if they are threatened by state security agents," said one businessman. "We have seen what they have done with the flea market people and informal settlers, so if SMEs [small and medium enterprises] don't comply, it might be to our own detriment."


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