Firing of Striking Nurses Stokes Concern Over Zimbabwe Democracy

(Bloomberg) -- The Zimbabwean government’s dismissal of thousands of striking nurses drew condemnation from labor unions and dimmed hopes that the removal of Robert Mugabe as president last year would usher in a new era of stability in the southern African nation.

The firings may hinder the drive by Emmerson Mnangagwa, who replaced Mugabe in November, to bolster confidence among the public and investors that he can re-establish the rule of law following four decades of Mugabe’s administration that showed scant regard for labor rights. The decision to dismiss the nurses, who were demanding better pay and working conditions, was announced on Tuesday by Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, the former military commander who was instrumental in forcing Mugabe to resign.

Firing of Striking Nurses Stokes Concern Over Zimbabwe Democracy

“Such ill-advised actions that offer a repeat of past repression should be avoided,” said Gary van Staden, an analyst at NKC African Economics in Paarl, near Cape Town. “It highlights the danger of military men assuming political power and failing to note the differences in problem-solving tactics appropriate when wearing a suit.”

While Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution enables all employees other than those who serve in the security forces to strike, it says laws can limit the exercise of that right to maintain essential services. Health Minister David Parirenyatwa told reporters Thursday that the dismissed nurses can reapply for their jobs and the government will hire others who are unemployed.

Essential Service

Chiwenga defended the decision to fire the nurses, saying they provide an essential service and refused to go back to work despite the government delivering on an agreement to allocate them a total of $17.1 million in additional pay. Their actions were “deplorable and reprehensible” and may be politically motivated, he said in an emailed statement from Harare, the capital.

Lovemore Madhuku, a law lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, said the law doesn’t allow summary dismissal, and the presidency has no power to fire nurses who are employed by the Health Service Board.

As many as 10,000 of Zimbabwe’s 13,000 state nurses could be affected by Chiwenga’s announcement, according to the Zimbabwe Nurses Association, which is challenging their dismissal in court.

“It’s a legal nullity -- you can’t have the vice president announcing the purported dismissal of workers on national television,” said Peter Mutasa, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. “We forgive him because he is still learning the new roles of government. Government did not follow due process and in terms of the law, you can’t just fire people willy-nilly like that.”

Military Mindset

The presidency didn’t answer calls or messages seeking comment.

Tendai Biti, a constitutional lawyer who leads the opposition People’s Democratic Party, which plans to challenge the ruling party in elections this year, accused the government of having a military mindset and being incapable of instituting democratic reforms.

“‘They are not capable of making any change,” he said in an interview in Bloomberg’s Johannesburg office on Wednesday. “They’ve been in power for 130 days now, but there’s nothing significant that they you can point out that they have done.”

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