Labour, Race Relations and Politics in Zimbabwe


In view of the recent labour furore in Zimbabwe, I came across some interesting information. Consider this.

In 1991, a researcher from the Graduate School of Management at the University of Queensland named M. Shadur published a report on a Zimbabwean parastatal’s performance.

In this narrative, the researcher laments that after independence, the post 1980 period saw “the promotion of inexperienced personnel into important managerial positions,” and “cases where older or more experienced Whites felt passed over for promotion in favour of Blacks.”

Furthermore, “after independence, management’s power over labour relations outcomes was reduced [as] government intervened to attenuate management’s right to hire and fire.”

The government’s intervention in labour relations after 1980 resulted in a frigid labour market characterized by the pro-worker labour laws that existed in Zimbabwe until the July 17 2015 supreme court ruling (which gave employers the right to dismiss employees on 3 month’s notice without benefits) and the consequent Labour Amendment Act of 2015.

Race and Economic Performance

Now, according to the research, the “parastatal was the sole supplier to its private-sector competitors of the basic ingredients for…products,” and the “parastatal operated in deficit, funded by state subsidies.

“The annual trading account deficit increased dramatically after independence, rising from 7 per cent of sales in the year to June 1980 to over 50 per cent of sales in each year from 1983.”

Regrettably, the research did not disclose the name of the parastatal, and therefore I am unable to judge its performance up to 2015.

Nevertheless, the fact that the organization’s deficit rose from “7 per cent of sales in the year to June 1980 to over 50 per cent of sales in each year from 1983,” is telling, as it perhaps illuminates two (mis)steps taken by the government in the 1980s that contribute to Zimbabwe’s current currency quandary.

Firstly, we racialised our economy, and secondly we politicized our economy.

Yes, prior to independence in 1980 opportunities were limited to Black Zimbabweans on the basis that they were Black, and that was the reason for the war.

Yet, after 1980, it seems as though we ignored our own reconciliation and unity messages, and proceeded to limit opportunities to White Zimbabweans on the basis that they were White.

By allowing “the promotion of inexperienced personnel into important managerial positions,” on the basis of race, (without official affirmative action procedures) we further racialised the workplace at the expense of production and performance.

Some may argue that in 1980 Zimbabwe had recently emerged from a protracted civil war, and that there was a sense of urgency on the part of government to encourage black Zimbabweans to participate in the economy. This is noted.

However, the state of the economy today shows us that promotion and indeed policy itself should be merit based and free from racial nuances, corruption and nepotism. Zimbabwe needs a radical paradigm shift if we are to get the country back on its feet.

As it stands, the national fiscus is burdened by several non-performing and bloated parastatals; many of which have joined the retrenchment orgy currently taking place in the country.

Reports indicate that over 20 000 jobs have been shed since July 17 2015.

The job hemorrhage that the country is suffering from can be analogized as the advanced stage of an ailment that began in the 1980s.

Now, I am not trying to argue that deserving black workers should not be promoted to managerial positions.

What I am trying to say is that we need to aspire to become a constitutional meritocracy like Singapore, and abandon our discriminatory approach to economics in both policy and practice.

Ultimately, opportunities should be made available to all citizens irrespective of race.

Politicization of the economy

Now, since the price controls of the 1980s, the government has been directly involved in the country’s economic affairs, at times irrationally.

For example, where production prices increased by 126 per cent from the mid-1980 to 1985, the prices to consumers remained relatively static owing to the government’s socialist inspired price controls.

You see, government’s interference in both labour relations and the marketplace back then was the start of the politicization of the economy that we see today.

I experienced government interference in the market while managing a butchery in 2001.

During that time, the government reintroduced price controls, after spending the 1990s under the dispensation of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP).

In that year (2001), the state’s price and currency controls forced retailers to sell goods at a loss.

As a result, the nation experienced foreign currency shortages and shortages of commodities like meat. Eventually, the black market became the main market until we demonetized the Zimbabwe dollar in 2009.

The hyperinflation of 2008 was the consequent climax of our politicized economics. What we need today is for the government to take a laissez-faire approach to the economy, and perhaps the best way to begin is to repeal the indigenization laws.

Today, the Indigenization Act stands as another reflection of the interference of politics in what is supposed to be the free market. Frankly, it makes no sense that we insist on enforcing Indigenization at a time when the nation is desperate for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).

We are literally asking people from the East and the West to come and do business here, and then after they arrive, we expect to tell them that they must give up 51% of their investment.

No one will pitch up to that party, because no one wants political interference in their business. The two should remain separate.

This is also true of Land Reform. That programme has been politicized.

If we can revisit the land programme and allow for merit-based land distribution irrespective of race, perhaps we can resuscitate our agriculture. As it stands, we have politicized land tenure at the expense of performance and productivity.


Section 56(3) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe reads, “Every Person has the right not to be treated in an unfairly discriminatory manner on such grounds as their nationality, colour, tribe, place of birth.

“Ethnic or social origin, language, class, religious belief, political affiliation, opinion, custom, culture, sex, gender, marital status, age, pregnancy, disability or economic and social status or whether they were born in or out of wedlock.”

I am a born-free (that is, born after 1980) Zimbabwean, who believes in implementing our constitutional values.

The thing is, the world perceives Zimbabwe’s political and racist rhetoric as a smoke screen for our reluctance to effect constitutionalism and good governance in the country.

Ultimately, we need to change our tone and revisit our policy. Period.

Tau Tawengwa

Executive Director


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Zimbabwe’s Labour Law Amendment Implications


The South African apartheid policy was based upon the ideological foundation that non-whites were a “detriment, drain and danger to the whites, and should therefore live separately from the white population.”


This resulted in “the creation of ten autonomous Bantustans through the 1951 Bantu Self-Government Act, affording to the natives autonomous sovereignty over traditional tribal lands and transferring their citizenship from the greater country to only that of their particular tribal affiliation, effectively disenfranchising the non-white population from South African political life.”


One particular law enacted by the apartheid regime that betrayed the racist foundations of the apartheid ideology was the 1949 “Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act No 55.” This act forbade marriages between whites and non-whites. Furthermore the “Immorality Act of 1957” which prohibited intimate relations between white people and people of other races also betrayed the racist ideological foundations of apartheid.


Yet, the incongruity of these edicts is indisputable. I mean why would anyone attempt to legislate who a person is allowed to marry? At the end of the day, these laws were clear infringements of individual rights.


Now, the relevance of these apartheid analogies to Zimbabwe’s current national affairs is significant. The fact is, by the mid-1980s it was clear that the apartheid behemoth was on its knees, and as a result all the major South African political economic and social heads were huddling and haggling.


Nevertheless, in the course of the mid-1980s negotiations, one of the clear tell-tale signs that the end of apartheid was imminent was the enactment of the Immorality and Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Amendment Act, 1985 (Act No. 72 of 1985).


This act of the South African parliament repealed the laws prohibiting marriage and sexual intercourse between white people and people of other races, and as a result it served as a legal indicator to social and political analysts that the impractical and unsustainable apartheid policy was reaching its end.


In light of the above, I’d like to zero in on certain aspects of the Zimbabwean legislature and their possible socio-economic indicators.


Firstly, labour laws in Zimbabwe are in the process of being amended in order to make it easier for employers to hire, fire and retrench employees, and to ensure that employees are paid for what they produce, and not just for being at work.


This is a significant legislative step, because historically, the labour laws in Zimbabwe have favored employees. In fact, prior to independence most African countries saw a coalescence of Black African trade unionism and African nationalism in the effort to achieve independence; and furthermore, the labour-nationalist coalition was often characterized by populist pro-socialist, pro-worker and pro-poor approaches to policy.


The same is also true in Zimbabwe where it was active Black trade unionism that organized the strikes of 1960, which arguably created a context for the spread of nationalism and liberation consciousness. Consequently, up until 1980, one could argue that black trade unions and African nationalist movements sang from the same song sheet.


After 1980, however, the pre-independence Marxist Leninist and socialist rhetoric of the liberation rulers slowly gave way to neo-liberal pro-business policies which included trade liberalization and reduction of role of the State in the economy. In practice, this meant reducing public sector jobs, slashing welfare services, and removing wage and price controls.


Yet, in resistance to neo-liberalism, the post-independence Zimbabwean trade unions often attempted to flex their muscles (especially in the 1990s) through repeated strikes, demonstrations and sometimes riots. In fact scholars have described industrial relations in Zimbabwe in the 1990s as “a decade of unprecedented industrial and social action.”


Since 2000 the trade union base has largely diminished, and as it stands in Zimbabwe today there are more people unemployed than those in formal work.


Ultimately, the amendment of the labour legislation indicates two things: firstly, the populist pro-socialist, pro-worker and pro-poor approaches to policy are officially dead. By amending labour laws the government is explicitly making it clear that it is taking the neo-liberal approach to the economy, which means it will have to shelve its African populist policies.


This in effect means that secondly, the indigenization laws will also be eventually amended in attempt to make them investor friendly. This is because, as it stands, the amended labour laws will make it easy for employers to hire and fire workers, and this will therefore have a direct impact on the indigenization inspired “employee share ownership schemes,” which by nature, require workers to be permanent in order for them to bear fruit.


The fact is that the country is moving away from its populist socialist history, and has now submitted to the fate of neo-liberalism.


Tau Tawengwa

Executive Director

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Flexible Labour Laws can assist growth in Zimbabwe



“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy,” wrote America’s second president, John Adams who was arguably of the view that the blood and toil of older generations should result in the freedom and actualization of the younger.


However, Zimbabwe has seen better days. While the older generation fought a protracted war against colonialism that resulted in the country’s independence, the younger (born free) generation has not significantly experienced economic actualization, and as it stands, for various reasons, the Zimbabwean economy is struggling , and about 80% of the country’s adult population is currently unemployed.


While various analysts and commentators have pointed to the perceived reasons for the country’s economic quandary and the possible solutions thereof, of interest to me at this juncture is the proposition to make the country’s labour laws more flexible in order to accentuate economic growth.


As part of his December 2013 national budget statement, the finance minister Patrick Chinamasa stated that government would review the country’s labour laws in attempt to create a flexible labour market, which should see to an increase in productivity.


Put plainly, labour market flexibility makes it easier for companies to hire and fire employees and to alter work hours and wage rates. A labour market with low flexibility is characterized by rules and regulations such as minimum wage restrictions and requirements from trade unions as is the case in South Africa.


Now, it has emerged that cabinet recently agreed to amend the Labour Act in attempt to loosen constraints in terms of retrenchments, terminal benefits, working hours and the arbitral awards system. This has apparently incensed the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) which is threatening to “go back to the streets” if this position is not reconsidered.


However, given the prevailing economic environment, one wonders whether militancy will in anyway assist the workers. After all, whether or not the government relaxes labour laws, retrenchments are ongoing.


In this light, it is important for the ZCTU to consider the following factors:


●Firstly, labour market flexibility will allow firms to become more competitive. It should be acknowledged that Zimbabwe does not exist in a vacuum, but is part of a globalized world. As it stands, the country has become a market for international products particularly from China, India and South Africa, and this has contributed to company closures- why? Simply because our local products are too expensive and consequently uncompetitive.


In fact, research reveals that China has experienced massive manufacturing growth over the years because of (among other things) labour market flexibility. The fact is that frigid labour laws do not allow for large-scale employment in sectors that are labour intensive.


Interestingly, a Chinese labour bulletin commenting on the Indian economy recently reported that “manufacturing is necessary to give the large groups of people well paying jobs in the formal sector, as opposed to the informal sector, in which most Indians work today,” and that “Indian trade unions need to learn from China on labour law flexibility.” Zimbabwean Trade unions can learn something as well.


●Secondly, The ZCTU needs to understand that its threat to “go back to the streets” is laughable, given that at best, it represents 20% of the economically active population. Unions are potent in highly productive economies like South Africa. Currently in Zimbabwe, those who are working are outnumbered four to one by those who are not formally employed, meaning that threatening militancy will only put the jobs of those who are formally employed in jeopardy.


●Finally, while calls for a Poverty Datum Line (PDL) aligned minimum wage of $USD540/month are noble, they are also impractical. You cannot force employers to pay amounts that they cannot afford- this will only lead to more retrenchments.


A 2013 Reuters report on the global minimum wage pegged China’s minimum wage at an average of $USD264/month while Brazil had an average of $USD287/month. The fact is that we cannot afford to pay our labour almost double the amount that our competitors pay theirs.


Ultimately, while labour market flexibility is favourable, it should be accompanied by efficient service delivery and good economic governance.


If the workers agree to sideline their immediate demands in favour of increased productivity, global competitiveness and possible economic growth, then it becomes the state’s responsibility to ensure that the workers do not fall victim to predatory capitalism. After all the worker’s children will still need to go to school, and they will still need access to affordable housing and hospitals.


Tau Tawengwa

Executive Director