HARARE, March 2 (The Source) – Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe left the country for medical checks in Singapore, days ahead of a planned Monday strike by civil servants who will join state health workers who walked out of hospital wards two weeks ago.
Mugabe’s spokesperson told state media the 93 year old leader left for “a scheduled medical review” in Singapore early on Wednesday. The southeast Asian island city state hosts Mugabe’s preferred infirmary amid increased speculation about his health, which remains a tightly guarded secret.
Zimbabwe’s sole leader since independence in 1980 frequently dismisses speculation about his health and has responded to calls for his retirement by announcing another run in next year’s presidential poll.
As Mugabe flew out, his government was scurrying to contain growing discontent within the state workforce.
Doctors in Zimbabwe’s state hospitals went on strike on February 15, to press for more pay and in protest against poor working conditions. The doctors’ job action was this week joined by nurses at public hospitals, who walked out of work to push for 2016 bonus payments and to push for improved working conditions.
The strike by health workers has paralysed service at under-staffed state medical facilities, already groaning under the burden of poor funding from government.
Teachers, who make up the bulk of the civil service, have warned they will join the strike on Monday, if the government does not set dates for the payment of the 2016 bonuses.
Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, who twice tried to scrap the bonus only to be publicly embarrassed by Mugabe, will now have to deal with a problem he thought he had fixed, in the absence of the boss who gainsaid him and kept it alive.
Chinamasa, faced with a mounting budget deficit which reached $1.2 billion in 2016, unsuccessfully pushed for various reforms — including suspending the 13th cheque for two years — to reduce a government wage bill which gobbles up 90 percent of total revenue. The state has been struggling to pay its workers’ basic pay, let alone meet a 13th cheque entitlement.
Mugabe called Chinamasa’s proposals ‘disgusting’ and promptly reversed them, but has not proffered clues on how the funds would be raised. Instead, he has maintained a conspicuous silence as civil servants clamour for the bonus payments.
Mugabe has also not publicly addressed the doctors’ strike.
In a statement on Thursday, Chinamasa said a meeting to try and resolve the health sector crisis had been scheduled for the same day.
“Notwithstanding the continued withdrawal of service by some members of the health service, I wish to advise that the Health Service Bipartite Negotiating Panel will be meeting on Thursday, 2 March 2017 and hopefully will reach an amicable position critical for the restoration of services within and across our public health institutions,” Chinamasa said.
However, government’s sectoral approach to the issue is unlikely to succeed in averting a full-scale civil service strike.
While Chinamasa spoke of a Thursday meeting with health worker representatives, his Labour ministry counterpart Prisca Mupfumira appeared on state television Wednesday night, saying the government would hold yet another meeting with the body representing all state employees.
The parties have held a series of inconclusive meetings, with the unions rejecting the government’s offer of residential stands in lieu of cash bonus payments.
The government’s protestations that it cannot afford to meet its workers’ demands are unlikely to find sympathy from civil servants when viewed within the context of its budget-busting expenditure on foreign travel and cars.
According to Treasury data, the government’s foreign travel expenses amounted to $44.9 million as of November 30 2016, against the budgeted $20.7 million. Expenditure on vehicles, plant and mobile equipment, at $38.6 million, was nearly 10 times the budgeted $3.9 million, the figures show.
As tensions continue to rise, the state-controlled flagship Herald on Thursday published pictures of houses it said belonged to union leaders in “medium to low density suburbs.” The paper ran an article accusing union chiefs of enjoying ownership of prime real estate, while “denying their membership the opportunity to possess residential stands.”
One of the accused officials, Raymond Majongwe who leads a teacher’s union, took to Twitter to deny the paper’s accusation, saying he only rented the property in a modest middle income suburb.
The government’s jitters about the planned civil servant strike are understandable.
Last year, a strike by government workers underpinned what became the biggest protest against Mugabe in recent years, when it was complemented by grassroots protest movements that used social media to organise a hugely successful nationwide shut-down on July 6.