VICE-PRESIDENT Constantino Chiwenga’s decision to fire striking nurses exposed government’s underlying authoritarian tendencies and his glaring statecraft limitations, raising questions over the new administration’s commitment to the rule of law, due process and constitutional rights, as well as political and civil liberties.
By Hazel Ndebele
Chiwenga, a retired army general, was appointed second-in-charge to President Emmerson Mnangagwa after he led a military coup that forced long-time leader Robert Mugabe out of office last November.
Last week, nurses downed their tools demanding basic essential tools to carry out their duties as well as payment of arrear salaries which date back as far as 2010.
The action came after the nurses gave their employer Health Service Board (HSB) a notice of intention to resort to collective job action should their grievances remain unaddressed.
However, the former Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander, who also serves as defence minister, fired the nurses claiming that the strike was politically motivated. Chiwenga threatened to hire retired nurses in order to replace the fired ones.
While Chiwenga’s decision could be informed by Treasury’s limited fiscal space, analysts say his failure to observe workers’ constitutional rights and labour laws raised alarm. To show government’s dictatorship tendencies, the nurses have since returned to work after bowing to pressure despite that their issues have not been addressed. On Monday this week Health and Child care minister David Parirenyatwa said government has permitted the nurses to resume duty pending final approval from the employer HSB.
“To pave way for re-opening of negotiations and protection of our workers, we have decided to call off the industrial action. Our court application still remains on course and papers have been saved to the defendant and we anticipate the court to seat soon to determine our case. We therefore encourage all our members to report on duty by Monday,” Zimbabwe Nurses Association (Zina) said in a statement.
However, Chiwenga’s initial decision to fire the nurses without following due processes puts Mnangagwa under the spotlight as he has been saying that government is open for engagement and that it is a consultative. The action also contradicts government’s promise that there will be no politicisation of the work place for the new government.
Analysts have warned it would be difficult for the Mnangagwa government to avoid military tendencies as he was helped to ascend by the army.
They said Zimbabwe’s government seems to adopting Rwanda’s governance system which has been blamed for sacrificing civil liberties for economy growth. Whether Rwanda’s authoritarian model — which is sometimes referred to as benevolent dictatorship — is desirable and sustainable or not, government seems to be determined to ensure a top-down style of governance.
Rwanda currently being led by President Paul Kagame for 18 years uses a combination of propaganda, repression and drummed-up fear to force every person in the country to comply with its agenda. In his book Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship journalist and author Anjan Sundaram exposes Kagame’s dictatorship tendencies in Rwanda’s increasingly authoritarian environment. Sundaram shows that the regime’s rule has long gone past the point of restoring order into outright abuse of the citizenry.
Similarly in Zimbabwe, the military intervened during Mugabe’s rule intending to “restore order”, but now analysts say it has gone past restoring order and is busy violating constitutional laws as well as labour laws as evidenced by the firing of nurses.
Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union (ZCTU) secretary-general Japhet Moyo said Chiwenga’s action of firing the nurses exposes that he does not know the legal way of dealing with such matters or he was simply taking advantage of the high levels of unemployment that those fired can easily be replaced.
“The person who made that decision has militarised industrial relations. He was just used to giving orders from the barracks and may honestly not be aware of the legal processes which have to be followed on such matters. The legal route to follow was for the Health Services Board to issue the employees with letters to attend a hearing where they explain their reasons of why they did not report for duty on certain dates and after that a decision can be made on whether to terminate their contracts or not. We honestly are not sure if Chiwenga was sober or had taken whisky before firing 15 000 nurses through a statement,” Moyo said.
“Chiwenga could also just be intimidating all civil servants out there and taking advantage of high levels of unemployment. He is sending a message to civil servants be it nurses or teachers that if you decide to strike you can easily be fired and be replaced the next day. This is in sharp contrast with the so-called new dispensation where we were promised that the rule of law will be upheld, that there will be no politicisation of the work place and so forth.”
Moyo said Chiwenga’s action flies in the face of Mnangagwa ’s claims of a new dispensation.
Chiwenga’s military tendencies are also exposed by his refusal to engage Zina. In a court application filed by Kantor and Immerman on behalf of Zina, the associates secretary-general Enock Dongo in an affidavit said: “On April 17, 2018, we met with the respondents (Health Services Board, Health and Child Care minister Parirenyatwa and third respondent (Chiwenga) threatened the leadership of the first applicant (Zina) with violence and ejected the first applicant’s president and secretary-general from the meeting.”
“ . . . In terms of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the applicants have the right to be heard prior to an administrative decision affecting them being made,” said Dongo.
Political commentator Maxwell Saungweme said Chiwenga’s actions have exposed his ignorance on statecraft.
“The martial sacking of nurses was a ghastly decision made by a securocrat who knows nothing about statecraft, but military orders and arbitrary actions. This leaves Zimbabwe as a country being handled by cabal hefty on brawn but lean on brainpower. A cabal that, by dehumanising and chastening nurses the way they did, proved not only to be a clear and present danger to our health but to democracy,” Sangweme said.
“Following the poor example of Rwanda of entrenching dictatorship while pursuing economic growth is not only thoughtless but betrays a government that has learnt and forgotten nothing from the Mugabe era.”