President Robert Mugabe and the war veterans must have been baffled. While the people agreed that war veterans should be paid gratuities and pensions, they emphatically said NO to the introduction of taxes to raise money for this. There was no time for consultations.
The people had made their decision and President Mugabe, normally a very rigid man, had to accept the people’s verdict. For those in the party this was a typical example of how democracy within the party works. But people were simply saying enough is enough.
After the MPs initially refused to endorse the loan for the new Harare International Airport, they were hailed for coming of age after 17 years of rubber-stamping whatever the government ordered. But that was short-lived. They were panel beaten into submission. But that was not the end of it.
MPs once again blocked the finance bill aimed at legitimising the taxes that had already been introduced by the government. To make matters worse, their endorsement was merely technical because the Minister of Finance was entitled to start deducting the taxes until Parliament rejected the bill. This meant that the government could levy taxes for up to half a year–and probably raise the amount it was after– against the wishes of the people. But the MPs were backed by the people and the government had no choice.
That people are now disgruntled was clearly demonstrated by the large numbers of people who marched to the urban centres on December 9 to demonstrate against the taxes. Crowds of 30 000 peaceful demonstrators were reported in Bulawayo and Masvingo, and bearing in mind that these are press figures, and are usually conservative when the ruling party is not involved, this must have been the envy of any politician.
President Mugabe himself, a crowd puller in his heydays, and even the grand old man Joshua Nkomo, have not addressed such huge crowds in years except perhaps at national functions like Independence Day or Heroes Day when people are bussed to the venues. But in this case, most of the people had walked all the way.
Thousands had been turned away. Thousands had stayed away quite aware of the ugly consequences. Although the demonstrations turned ugly in Harare, the message had been put across. And for once everyone agreed on who was to blame for the violence. Even The Herald conceded that police in Harare had been “in the majority of cases, excessively overzealous and extremely liberal in their use of teargas”.
The demonstrations should also have provided a morale booster for the national labour movement, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. And the assault of chief executive Morgan Tsvangirai, by “unknown” assailants should bring him back to the limelight. But while the ZCTU has already promised to have a post mortem on the demonstrations and what steps to take, it must be very clear to them now that with careful planning, consultations with the workers and other organisations which share the same views with them, they can extricate themselves from political oblivion. They made the right decision at the right time. Now it is time to make sure the bubble does not burst.
ESAP too, which has weakened the labour movement to some extent, this time played in their favour. People who have previously ignored calls for protest, minding their own business, and fighting to make ends meet, finally discovered that it was only through collective action that they could get their message across to government.
Although one market analyst said the increase in taxes would effectively have raised taxes for individuals to 44 percent and for companies to 42.75 percent, the First Merchant Bank said before the new taxes were proposed, on average, direct and indirect taxes now absorb more than 50 percent of basic formal sector wages and salaries, “but for the approximately 30 percent of the employees in the formal sector who are in the personal income tax net, the offtake is estimated at an average of more than 75 percent”.
Worse still a government survey on poverty that was recently released shows that 84 percent of the people in rural areas and 39 percent in urban areas are poor. They are earning less than $1 290 a year.