Harare (CNSNews.com) - The normally busy downtown area of Harare was noticeably quieter Tuesday morning as heavily armed police and soldiers patrolled the streets.
Most banks and shops in the Zimbabwe capital were closed. Very few factory workers arrived at work and buses normally transporting workers from the townships to the city were almost empty.
For days the government has been bracing itself, as a two-day national protest strike takes hold.
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, a federation which represents 90 percent of organized labor, called the strike to protest a 70 percent rise in gasoline prices imposed by the government on June 12 that has further fueled inflation in an already crumbling economy.
Commuter bus fares soared by the equivalent of the gas hikes.
The government has declared the strike illegal and government offices and schools were ordered to remain open. It's accused the labor federation of economic sabotage in calling the strike.
Veterans of the independence war, who have spearheaded violent farm seizures on behalf of the Mugabe government, threatened Tuesday to take unspecified action against the owners of companies participating in the strike. Those who were not Zimbabwean nationals would be given one day to leave the country, a leading "war veteran," Joseph Chinotimba, was quoted as saying.
Lovemore Matombo, president of the labor federation, dismissed government allegations that the planned strike was economic sabotage by political opponents of President Robert Mugabe that would worsen unemployment by forcing more businesses to close.
"The government has created the inflation and unemployment through mismanagement and corruption," Matombo said. "By withdrawing their labor we will make them listen."
The federation vowed to defy the government's ban but urged workers to stay home and not take part in public demonstrations against the government.
Zimbabwean economist John Robertson predicts the strike may provoke violent retribution from Mugabe's government.
"With a rapidly shrinking economy and the political crisis deepening, the smallest excuse would be needed to declare a state of emergency, with sweeping powers of arrest, detention without trial, the suspension of parliament and rule by decree," Robertson said.
Unemployment has exceeded 60 per cent and inflation has rocketed to more than 70 percent. An estimated 70 percent of the 12.5 million population lives in poverty.
Previous national work stoppages organized by the labor federation have shut down the economy. A series of strikes in 1988 erupted in rioting, with eight people killed by police and troops quelling the violence.
The National Constitutional Assembly, a loosely affiliated group of non-governmental organizations, has supported the call for the stay-away.
NCA's deputy head, Dr Lovemore Madhuka, said that although the organization didn't help organize the stay-away its members have been encouraged to support it.
"The government can't address the economic needs of its people. It doesn't tolerate other views and so we are faced with a crisis, both economically and politically," he said.
But Dr Madhuka says he's disappointed by the response from the majority of the workers.
"Many people have heeded the call but in the center of town, about 50 percent of the shops are open, its quite clear that not everyone is committed," he said.
Meanwhile the official opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change has urged the rest of the world not to turn its back on Zimbabwe.
During a meeting in London on Monday, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai urged Britain not to abandon it troubled former colony.
His visit comes amid growing pressure on Mugabe's government to halt the controversial land reform program.
The government plans to take the mostly white-owned farms and resettle them with poor black farmers in a bid to redress colonial-era inequalities in land ownership.
Mugabe's land reforms have been closely linked to political violence against the MDC, which has posed the most serious challenge ever to his 21-year rule.
Last week the U.S. government launched its most scathing attack yet on Mugabe, blaming him for the economic crisis his country now faces.
The U.S. also said it would no longer have normal relations with Zimbabwe until the violence and intimidation has ended.
U.S. Takes Firm Stance On Zimbabwe As Economy Falters (Jun 29, 2001)