Trade Unions’ boycott : The last straw to break Mugabe’s back ?

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Trade unions in Zimbabwe’s neighbouring countries have agreed to ratchet up the pressure on Robert Mugabe’s regime by staging a one-week boycott of all goods bound for the poverty-stricken country.

By Tom Burgis in Johannesburg

Zimbabwe’s economy is already on the brink of collapse, with inflation thought to be well above the official rate of 2.2m per cent and food scarce.

But in a sign of its growing influence at home and abroad, Cosatu, South Africa’s labour federation, on Tuesday said it and its allies in the region planned to refuse to handle imports heading for Zimbabwe at the end of this month.

”It will affect the ordinary people, no doubt about it,” said Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu secretary-general, after a meeting with his counterparts from Zimbabwe and Swaziland in Johannesburg.

But he added: ”[Mr Mugabe] is illegitimate. He is a dictator …He is already crumbling. He is on his knees … We hope that this last push from civil society will help deliver the demands of the people for democracy and development.”

Cosatu’s vociferous criticisms of the Harare regime have put it at odds with the African National Congress, despite both being members of South Africa’s ruling alliance, and with Thabo Mbeki, the outgoing president whose attempts to broker a deal in Harare through ”quiet diplomacy” have drawn international opprobrium.

The boycott – which will also target shipments to Swaziland – is scheduled for the week leading up to September 3.

The unions are demanding that Mr Mugabe relinquish power to a transitional authority to oversee fresh elections following the president’s widely criticised victory in June polls.

Yesterday Mr Mugabe was locked in a third day of faltering talks aimed at brokering a power-sharing deal with Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader who triumphed in March’s first round vote before withdrawing from the race as violence against his supporters escalated.

Cosatu hopes to convince unions in the other countries surrounding landlocked Zimbabwe to participate. The South African federation’s members include customs workers, lorry drivers and airport staff. Dockers belonging to Cosatu showed their strength earlier this year when they blocked a shipment of Chinese arms destined for Zimbabwe.

Half of Zimbabwe’s imports come from South Africa. Of total imports, food accounts for 15 per cent, fuel and chemicals 20 per cent each, and vehicles and machinery 21 per cent. According to World Trade Organisation calculations from 2006, South Africa, Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique cumulatively were the origin for 70 per cent of all imports.

Official data show that, of the 550,000 tonnes of maize purchased by the national grain board during the most recent marketing season, 380,000 tonnes came from Malawi, Zambia and South Africa.

The humanitarian situation is already dire. According to UN agencies some 5m people – about half the remaining population – will need food aid by the turn of the year. The government has banned relief agencies.

Mr Vavi said the initial one-week boycott could be followed by a fortnight-long stoppage. ”We know that they could not take a two-week boycott,” he said.

Additional reporting by Tony Hawkins in Harare

The Financial Times

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