- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

JOHANNESBURG — South African police barricaded the Zimbabwean Embassy in Pretoria yesterday as hundreds of trade unionists demonstrated outside the mission, demanding an end to the 25-year rule of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

The protest by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was the fifth in as many weeks as student, church, union and human rights groups step up pressure against the Mugabe government, which they accuse of trying to rig elections set for March 31.

Mr. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) faces a stiff challenge from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has promised to restore human rights and reverse economic policies that have led to 90 percent unemployment, a critical shortage of food and the world’s highest rate of inflation.

Yesterday’s protest is likely to further strain relations between COSATU and South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC). When it assumed power in 1994, the ANC formed a “tripartite alliance” with COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP) in which the three pledged not to campaign against each other in elections.

But, in the past year, cracks have emerged, with COSATU and the SACP accusing South African President Thabo Mbeki of ignoring South Africa’s rising rates of poverty and unemployment. The biggest rift has been over Mr. Mbeki’s policy of “quiet diplomacy” toward Mr. Mugabe.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have classified Zimbabwe’s government among the world’s most repressive regimes, but Mr. Mbeki has refused to condemn Mr. Mugabe or apply sanctions.

Two-thirds of Zimbabwe’s trade and most of the country’s fuel passes through South Africa.

COSATU has strong links with the MDC, which grew out of Zimbabwe’s union movement, and some analysts suggest that the ANC is reluctant to take any action that could see a union-based party take power in a neighboring state.

In recent years, there have been calls among workers for COSATU to form its own political wing, which could challenge the ANC’s grip on power.

Yesterday, while the mix of union members and Zimbabwean exiles chanted slogans in Pretoria, the SACP issued a joint statement with COSATU, uniting the two organizations in their fight for the “democratization of Zimbabwe.”

A string of protests are planned over the next week, culminating in an all-night vigil on March 30 at Beit Bridge on the Limpopo River, which marks South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe.

The vigil is expected to attract thousands of activists, including some of the 3 million black Zimbabweans who have sought political and economic refuge in South Africa.

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