Zimbabwe police stop protest march by civil servants

Zimbabwean riot police block a road ahead of a planned protest in Harare, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. Zimbabwe's police patrolled the streets of the capital Friday morning while many residents stayed home fearing violence from an anti-government demonstration planned by the opposition. TSVANGIRAYI MUKWAZHI AP PHOTO
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HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe police on Wednesday blocked a handful of public sector workers from marching to government offices with a petition demanding better pay, reneging on an earlier pledge to allow the demonstration.

The march had been seen as a test of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s willingness to tolerate dissent after banning recent opposition protests over the parlous state of the economy.

Government employees in the southern African nation want Mnangagwa’s administration to pay them U.S. dollar-indexed salaries to cushion them against triple-digit inflation.

This would see the least paid worker earning 7,309 Zimbabwe dollars ($475) – seven times more than the 1,023 Zimbabwe dollars they currently receive.

Dozens of police, who outnumbered protesters, confined the workers outside the offices of the Apex Council of public sector unions in Harare, saying only their leaders should deliver a petition to the ministries of finance and labour.

Apex Council leaders tore copies of the petition in protest, to cheers from the workers, and said the union would meet soon to consider their next course of action.

“The police just told us that we could no longer march to government offices because of security fears,” Charles Chinosengwa, the Apex Council organising secretary, told Reuters as members chanted trade union songs.

Chinosengwa blamed the poor turnout by the workers on intimidation by the government.

One protester held a poster saying “Oversized prices, under age salaries,” as he taunted police after some of his colleagues breached a cordon before they were dragged back.

Zimbabwe is in the grips of its worst economic crisis in a decade, with shortages of foreign exchange, fuel, medicine and electricity, while a severe drought pummels agriculture.

Hopes that the economy would recover have faded as Mnangagwa, who took over from the late Robert Mugabe after a coup in 2017, struggles to convince the population that his economic reforms will work.

There was no immediate comment from police or the government on the aborted march.