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Harare Adopts Conciliatory Stance As Organized Labor Takes To Streets

Zimbabwe's labor minister made a conciliatory gesture on the eve of national protests by workers over deteriorating living standards in the Southern African nation, while the state security apparatus deployed to put down the demonstrations and an opposition party leader warned the government against putting down protests with force.

Labor Minister Nicholas Goche said Tuesday that the government is ready to discuss the grievances of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which has called workers across the country into the streets for demonstrations on Wednesday.

Goche said Harare “is not opposed” to the demands of the ZCTU for wage talks that take rising poverty and other factors into consideration. But he added that if the ZCTU insists on staging protests, it would be pursuing a “hidden agenda.”

Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said security authorities have prohibited the planned protests, citing fears they could turn violent and lead to looting. However, the union insists the two-hour marches in Harare and other cities will go ahead.

In Harare, ZCTU members and supporters were to gather at noon at Construction House, an office complex in the city center, then deliver petitions to the ministries of Labor and Finance and also to the Zimbabwe Employers Confederation.

Bulawayo workers were scheduled to march from the Civic Center office development to the local branch of the labor ministry.

For labor’s response to Harare's call for dialogue, reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe turned to ZCTU President Lovemore Matombo.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai reiterated its moral support for the protests, though the political party would keep an arm's length from the demonstrations in order not to undermine the trade union's position that the marches are purely an expression of worker dissatisfaction.

Taking a tough stance in his weekly message circulated by e-mail, Tsvangirai, himself a former trade unionist, warned the government against using "brutality" to suppress protests. Otherwise, he cautioned the administration, Harare would "invite the ire of the party and generate the requisite response," which he did not specify.

Reporter Jonga Kandemiiri asked Tsvangirai to clarify the MDC’s stance.

Regional backing for the ZCTU protest came in the form of a a coalition of eight youth organizations in South Africa, some affiliated with the African National Congress and its strategic allies, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, or COSATU, and the Communist party. Delegates were to fly into Harare on Wednesday morning.

Reporter Blessing Zulu spoke with Castro Ngobese, national spokesman of the Young Communist League of South Africa, about the demonstration of solidarity.

Elsewhere, some 107 members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise arrested on Monday in Harare protests over the decline in municipal services remained in police hands late Tuesday, said their lawyer, Tafadzwa Mugabe of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. He said they were expected to appear in court on Wednesday.

Mugabe said the women faced charges of participating unlawfully in a public gathering with intent to cause public disorder. The lawyer said the women have been dispersed to the Harare Central, Rhodesville and Chitungwiza police stations. One women went into labor and was rushed to the hospital to deliver a child, Mugabe said.

Elements of the Zimbabwean opposition in the United Kingdom were planning to hold their own protest on Wednesday at Harare’s London embassy. The Zimbabwe Vigil, a diaspora activist group, and the U.K. branch of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change faction say they'll time their protest to coincide with those in Zimbabwe.

Spokesman Mathew Nyashanu of the MDC’s U.K. branch told Patience Rusere that the London demonstration will launch a new tactic for diaspora opponents.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...