Civil servants stung by Zimbabwe’s galloping inflation staged what they hoped would be a crippling one-day strike on Wednesday in a demand for increased wages, saying that their earnings are disappearing under skyrocketing prices.
It is the first time that government workers in Zimbabwe have been allowed to strike against their employer, and the action in the Southern African nation comes as inflation stands at approximately 300 percent, according to recent International Monetary Fund figures.
There were signs that the strike could spiral down into violence, as clashes erupted between government workers and police forces on Wednesday.
The civil servants’ work stoppage comes amid another ongoing walkout, this time by Zimbabwean doctors, many of whom have been on strike for about two months to demand increased wages paid in American dollars.
On Tuesday, the government fired 77 of the striking doctors, out of the total of 1,680 doctors in the country.
The 77 doctors were accused of failing to attend a disciplinary hearing that they had been summoned to attend by the country’s Health Service Board.
The government workers’ strike followed a walkout on Monday by nurses in local authority clinics in the capital, Harare. The nurses said that they were incapacitated and unable to work because of poor wages.
The Zimbabwean government seems acutely aware of the mounting crisis. On Tuesday, Monica Mutsvangwa, the minister of information, said at a news conference after a cabinet meeting that “medical services at most central hospitals” remained limited because “the public hospitals medical doctors’ strike has now gone beyond 63 days.”
The government has over the past months tried to appease its workers by providing allowances to help meet the rising cost of living. But that has not stopped the board representing civil servants in Zimbabwe, the Apex Council, from calling a strike.
A member of the council, Takavarasha Zhou, said, “Government workers are earning an equivalent of $40 or less, and so we appeal to the government to pay us better.”
The country’s police had approved the strike action, even though in August, with the backing of a court, the authorities banned demonstrations by members of opposition political parties and civil society organisations.
The striking workers on Wednesday sang and danced as they gathered outside the offices of the Apex Council. They waved placards with protest slogans directed at the government as armed police officers stood by.
The protesters had wanted to march to the offices of the Ministry of Finance, where they had intended to hand over a petition outlining their grievances. But heavily armed police officers blocked their movement.
“It’s like police gave us the right to march with their right hand, but quickly snatched it away with their left hand,” said Cecilia Alexander, the president of the Apex Council.
In the petition, the council appealed to the minister of finance, Mthuli Ncube, to “take our concerns seriously, without which the situation will lead to serious unrest.”
Charles Mubwandarikwa, chairman of the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, which joined the strike in solidarity with other government workers, said, “Today we have come to send a clear message to the government.”
“We need increased salaries to be able to keep coming to work,” he added.
In the past, teachers’ unions have demonstrated against the government for better wages and improved working conditions with or without the assent of the authorities.
Since coming to power, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government has resorted to using force to quell any anti-government protests.
In August 2018, after demonstrators in Zimbabwe’s capital called the country’s peaceful elections a sham and demanded the immediate release of the results in the July presidential poll, Mnangagwa’s government unleashed the army on protesters.
At least six people were shot and killed in the clashes.
In January this year, Mnangagwa’s government again deployed the military when anti-government protests broke out against a rise in fuel prices, leaving 17 people fatally shot in Harare and nearby towns.
Mnangagwa’s government has struggled to sell its open-for-business mantra to the developed world, but it has received the support of the South African Development Community to lift sanctions imposed by the United States on Zimbabwean government officials.
In October, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced sanctions against the minister of state security, Owen Ncube, and denied him entry to the United States for “a gross violation of human rights in Zimbabwe.”
Thousands were called to march on the same day against American and European sanctions in Zimbabwe, with Mr. Mnangagwa telling the crowds that the impact of sanctions “on our daily lives is immeasurable and the consequences are dire.”
Even as Zimbabwe has tried to re-engage Washington, a diplomatic fallout between Zimbabwe and the United States has complicated matters.
The foreign affairs minister, Sibusiso Moyo, accused the United States ambassador to Zimbabwe, Brian Nicholson, of acting like a member of the country’s opposition. Moyo this month threatened to cut off diplomatic ties after Mr. Nicholson apparently suggested that corruption, not sanctions, were behind the country’s economic malaise.