HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s public sector unions were divided on Wednesday over whether to launch a national strike after wage talks with the government failed, leaving the country on edge over the possibility of more unrest.
Zimbabwe was rocked by violent protests for three days in mid-January that led to a brutal security crackdown.
The security forces’ heavy-handed response raised fears that under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the country was sliding back into the kind of authoritarianism seen during Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule.
Mnangagwa’s spokesman said troops would stay on the streets and the state would block the internet again if violence flared.
Teachers and other state workers are demanding wage rises and payments in dollars to help them stave off spiraling inflation and an economic crisis that has sapped supplies of cash, fuel and medicines in state hospitals.
Rights groups say at least 12 people were killed this month after a three-day stay-at-home strike over a fuel price hike led to street protests and a crackdown by security services. The government says three people died.
At a meeting with unions, the government proposed to give land to build houses and food hampers for employees, union officials said. Public sector unions had on Monday issued the government with a 48-hour ultimatum to make a new salary offer or face a strike.
The Apex Council, which represents 17 public sector unions, then failed to agree on whether to hold a strike during a short meeting that broke down as officials accused each other of either working for the opposition or the government.
“The Apex Council meeting ended prematurely and people walked out. There is no consensus. How do we go on strike when our fellow unions are coming and saying some unions were paid?” said Raymond Majongwe, secretary general of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe.
He said his union was among those accused by colleagues of being paid by the opposition and donors to go on strike and cause violence, charges he denied.
The biggest teachers union has called for a strike on Feb. 5.
Mnangagwa - who came to power in November 2017 after long-time ruler Mugabe was forced to resign in a coup - promised to revive the economy and break with Mugabe politics.
But frustration over the economic crisis is building and analysts say the pace of economic and political reform is too slow for impatient citizens.
Mnangagwa on Wednesday picked a 24-member advisory council to advise him on economic reforms, a government source said.
The 76-year-old leader has promised to investigate the crackdown on protesters and to bring in measures to tackle the economic crisis but the opposition does not trust him.
His spokesman said it would take time to rebuild an economy that had been suffering for decades.
“There are key bread and butter questions which government cannot dodge, things are tough,” George Charamba told a state-owned Harare radio station.
“But it would be a sad day to think that the only way that we can remedy such a problem is by causing further damage to that already damaged economy through mayhem, through looting, through chaos.”
Charamba said police and soldiers would stay on the streets and that government would shut the internet again if violence broke out. He previously said the crackdown was a foretaste of how the government would react to future protests.
Editing by James Macharia, William Maclean