In Harare, on the way to our meeting with Wellington Chibebe, the secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), even our driver was excited for us.
"He is a good, good man. I've only seen him on TV, but he's fights very hard for the people and to promote democracy!"
Since the early 1990s, ZCTU grew increasingly opposed to the government of Robert Mugabe and was the main force behind the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In fact, MDC's leader and the current Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Morgan Richard Tsvangirai held the same position with the ZCTU before Chibebe.
Chibebe is one of the most vocal-and effective-voices in civil society promoting respect for human rights and democracy. Despite being brutally beaten, tortured, and having his life threatened over the last two decades, Chibebe remains more positive than ever about the direction of his country. It was largely due to Zimbabwe's labor movement that in the 2008 presidential election Tsvangirai defeated Mugagbe. Yet despite MDC's victory, Mugabe, refuses to step down and the nation has a "power sharing" agreement.
When we met with Chibebe, he was cautiously optimistic about the power-sharing agreement and the future of democracy in Zimbabwe. "Our role as the labor movement is to fight for democracy and good governance, respect for people's basic rights, and also social and economic rights." He says that while the MDC plays a critical role in promoting democracy, the mission of the union movement will be to hold all political parties accountable to these principles. "We just can't afford to repeat the same mistake by treating any government or political party as angels from heaven," he says. While he described the beginning of the power-sharing agreement as "terrible," Chibebe felt strongly that "things are now getting better, we are able to make some positive changes happen."
Chibebe was born 300 miles south of Harare. His upbringing herding goats and farming built both a sense of responsibility and social consciousness, he says. "Rural kids grow up different from urban ones, you start fighting for your rights at a very early age. If you aren't aggressive, you'll get abused." He also described how in rural life he had no access to books or libraries, so everyone listened to their elders, learning about the importance of struggle and hearing passionate tales of resistance against the ruling government. Not even a teen when his mother passed away, Chibebe became passionately involved in political struggle for social and economic justice that has lasted his whole life.
Being at the helm of the Zimbabwe labor movement at this moment is no easy task. The country faces unemployment rates of more than 90 percent. The media is controlled by the government. Union leaders are routinely harassed and imprisoned. And the Mugabe government instituted draconian laws to thwart unions, such as arresting any meeting of more than four people. Yet the affiliates of the ZCTU, representing more than 30 unions and every sector of the economy, have remained united. "While it is very difficult at times with unemployment so high to convince people to be in unions, we are still able to recruit and grow."
Chibebe works tirelessly to bring attention to Zimbabwe's economic and human rights realities and to pressure the government to reform its ways. As workers struggle to survive inflation and low paying informal employment, Chibebe has expanded the work of the ZCTU to represent all workers in both formal and informal employment. ZCTU fights for economic and social justice not just for his members, but for the fundamental rights of all of Zimbabwe's workers.
In 2002, Chibebe and the ZCTU had the vision of helping informal sector workers-everyone from street vendors to musicians and artisans-form unions. The desire for social and economic change spread like wild fire when the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Associations (ZCIEA) started in 2002. Presently with more than 1.5 million paying members (out of 3.5 million members), the informal workers now have access to all the resources of the ZCTU such as their lobbyists, their research arm, and the strength and power of their affiliate unions.
Chibebe, and everyone we met with at ZCTU, speaks with great pride about the support they've been given by the American labor movement through the Solidarity Center, which maintains an office in the country. "Because of the Solidarity Center and the American worker, we've had incredible moral and material support," Chibebe said. Some of the examples he cites are the role the Solidarity Center plays in supporting their research institute, expanding distribution of their newspaper "the Worker," their ability to fund a lobbyist, create a paralegal program, training activists and leaders, and getting support from international governments and politicians through organizational delegations such as the visit from the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU).
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