Abducted doctors’ union president released as health workers shutdown the system in protest

Dr Peter Magombeyi, the acting president of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA) was abducted on Saturday 14th September. He was released by his abductors only after five other health sector unions comprising the Health Apex Council (which brings together all the health sector unions, including the doctors’ union), joined the ZHDA in a protest strike and demonstrations, demanding his release.

The exact circumstances of Dr Magombeyi’s release are still unclear. He was found in Nyabira, some 30km from the capital Harare where he had been kidnapped. But what is clear is that he was brutalised and tortured. In an interview he granted the Voice of America, shortly after he was found, Dr Magombeyi said: “I remember being in a basement of some sort, being electrocuted at some point, that is what I vividly remember. I, I just don’t remember.” And the news agency also noted that he was “struggling to speak”.

The Zimbabwean government has tried to wash its hands off this despicable development. It appears that government officials would have the world believe that the abduction of Dr Peter was carried out by a “third force” intent on destabilising the country. This is drawing from the tricks book of the late Robert Mugabe who ruled for 37 years. These faceless “third forces” were never identified and there was every reason to believe that such claims are a ruse now as they were then.

In its 17th September letter to the minister of health and childcare, the Health Apex Council showed that there was every reason to believe that Dr Magombeyi’s abduction was “linked to his position as a union leader.” This was “in (the) light of prior threatening messages he and other Health Apex Council members had been receiving in the past months”.

ZHDA members have been on strike since the beginning of September demanding wage increment, because they “could no longer afford to report for duty amid surging inflation and continued deterioration of Zimbabwe’s economy.” Other unions in the sector have equally demanded significant increases in remuneration, as their take home pay does not take them home. And that is why health workers considered the abduction as being “not only an attack against Dr Magombeyi’s person, but at a greater scale, as an attack against unionism relating to the interests of health workers”.

Workers across the length and breadth of Zimbabwe have been having a very hard time for some years. This has worsened over the last two years. the failure of neoliberal policies of the state has resulted in rising costs and worsening standards of living. The trade unions have been doing what trade unions are meant to do – fight for workers. But the response of government has been crude, and utterly condemnable repressive measures. Its repertoire of repression has included physical attacks of striking workers, detention without trial, rape and abduction of trade unionists.

It is within this context that we can best understand the five-day drama of the absurd, which Dr Magombeyi’s abduction amounts to. But it marks what might be a more dangerous moment for trade unionists and pro-democracy activists in Zimbabwe, if the world does not now say “enough is enough!”

The country has been embroiled in the intertwined dynamics of repression and resistance. These were heightened in the wake of contested elections last year. President Emmerson Mnangagwa stood for elections for the first time, having come into power via a coup which removed Robert Mugabe, on the crest of mass anger. But he has followed the neoliberal bible of austerity measures even more judiciously than Mugabe whom he served as Vice President for ages. The people’s anger exploited by the deep state which brought him to power remains fervent.

Thirteen people were killed during a general strike and mass protests in January, with hundreds of rapes and beatings recorded. And since then, more than 20 trade unionists, radical activists and opposition politicians have been charged with subversion, an offence that carries a long prison sentence.

Mr Mnangagwa, who was the ruthless spy chief under Mugabe has deployed the cloak and dagger tactic of abduction with high frequency. Dozens of labour and other activists have been kidnapped by suspected state security personnel over the last thirteen months. But, most of them have been released after several hours, often “badly beaten, stripped, threatened or otherwise mistreated.”

It is terrible enough that the state which is assumed to be based on the rule of law, assumes a kidnapping mode of suppression. That the detention of Dr Magombeyi was this extended, is cause for concern. While the fate that might have befallen the junior doctors’ leader if workers had not fought back with a strike is inconceivable, it also shows where the silver lining within this tragic drama series of the absurd lies – our collective power, to resist.

Zimbabwean health workers have shown they can stand up against repression. But “an injury to one, is an injury to all”. We cannot leave our sisters and brothers alone in this struggle against a reptilian dictatorship. It is up to trade unions, working-class organisations and all democratic forces across the world to make it clear to the Zimbabwean government that continued repression of working-class people is totally unacceptable