By Takura Zhangazha
Cde Lovemore Matombo, the former president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) quietly passed on this week. An organic intellectual and left leaning trade unionist for many years, he had an unassuming aura about his person that never betrayed the immense role he had played in keeping trade unionism afloat after the formation of the then worker’s party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
And also as a successor ZCTU president to the inimitable and regrettably also late, Gibson Sibanda. Together with then secretary general, Wellington Chibebe, Matombo, ensured that the ZCTU would have a smooth leadership transition after the resignation of its then charismatic secretary general, again also late, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Matombo was to ably steer the ZCTU through the difficult years of being accused of being an affiliate of the opposition MDC, the hyperinflation years of 2008-2010, the informalisation of the economy and the general crackdown on human rights by the Mugabe government. This also included phases in which he, together with his colleagues in the trade union movement would be arrested and tortured for irgansiing either national stay-aways’ or demonstrations against either unfair labour practices, the high cost of living or the dire state of human rights in the country.
Matombo also sought to maintain the ZCTU’s critical historical role in challenging the hegemony of the ruling Zanu Pf party. I specifically mention ‘hegemony’ because ideologically Matombo was as clea as daylight on his social democratic credentials. He did not challenge Zanu PF merely because it was in power and ruling badly. He challenged Zanu Pf primarily on the basis of how he directly disagreed with it’s ideological outlook. One which was largely a radical neoliberal nationalism that relied more on the past than it sought solutions for the future.
In conversation with him he would also aver that in part the opposition MDC, as initially formed by the congress of trade unions, was also beginning to lose its ideological social democratic radar to neoliberalism. In mentioning this he would however point out the difficulties he was facing in the labour movement trying to navigate various blind loyalties to either political parties or embassies by some of his colleagues and affiliate unions. And how in part he could not however risk any further division of the union in the difficult operating environment that was already increasingly hostile to unionism.
A unique characteristic that Matombo demonstrated was his evident willingness to interact with civil society. The ZCTU was still by far the largest organization outside of the state and churches, but he never had a high browed approach to meet with CSOs’. I always fondly remember his hearty welcomes at the annual May Day/Workers Day rallies.
He also never hesitated to participate in broader multi-stakeholder engagements such as that which would bring about the Zimbabwe People’s Charter. Or to directly engage with the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) and challenge the Zanu-PF- MDC constitutional reform process of 2010-2013 on the basis of democratic principle.
The latter was also to make him lose some allies in civil society, affiliate unions and the international community. But he stuck to his principles. I do not recall him expressing regret on the decisions he made about his ideological persuasions or strategic considerations on either constitutionalism or the national political economy.
This was demonstrable via one particular example concerning the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU). Matombo was a keen supporter of student and youth activism. He however had a keen intent that it not be directly similar to the way it was done in Zanu Pf, that is be based on materialism and raw populism. At a time when the MDC-T was fighting for control of ZINASU, Matombo chose to support an organic student leadership that was not influenced ether by populism, donors or mercenary politicians. Together with the NCA, the ZCTU supported a progressive ZINASU and refused to succumb to undue pressure on the matter.
On matters beyond unionism Matombo would always demonstrate organic and progressive knowledge. And always in its left leaning assessment of global events and how a better world is possible.
And he also had an amazing sense of caustic humour. At one time we had travelled to Chinhoyi for a Zinasu national congress in 2010 as solidarity delegates. We were slightly late but had not had breakfast and so we headed to the dining hall. Once there I noticed how quickly he was handling his breakfast. He noticed my startled expression and looked up at me and said, “Cde Zhangazha, eat quickly. We might get arrested. And we don’t want that on empty stomachs!”
Or the way he would specially mention the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) for its propaganda against the ZCTU by mockingly referring to it as ‘Zete Biii Ciii!’
Cde Matombo is a man that will be sorely missed by Zimbabwe’s left and its progressive civil society. Even more significantly his brand of labour unionism that can only be admired and urgently learnt from.
Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com