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The young woman at the helm of Zimbabwe’s most powerful union

IT’S a late Tuesday afternoon and the entrance to Gorlon House on Jason Moyo Avenue, Harare, is a beehive of activity. Throngs of people are coming and going. I hurry past them and into the building to interview the woman who is said to be bringing constitutionality and balance back to the trade union movement – long seen as either a pawn or a thorn in the side of government – and who is also determined to bring gender balance to the management level of the country’s unions. That woman is Florence Taruvinga. And she’s waiting for me.

Inside Taruving’as office, a woman is standing near an executive desk, clad in safety shoes and a blue-collar industrial suit. As I look around the room, I’m jolted by an approach from the woman in front of me, who, as if reading my mind, says, “Welcome, and take a seat,” quickly adding, “I am Florence.”

The President of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) is clearly a woman determined to show that she leads from the front, as a defender of workers’ welfare and rights. The 33-year-old defeated her primary challenger, activist Peter Mutasa, during the 9th ZCTU elective conference.

Florence Tavuringa making a contribution during the ZCTU’s 8th ordinary Congress. Photo Credits: Florence Tavuringa

The position is one that several other powerful Zimbabwean women, among them the late Labour Minister, Florence Chitauro, firebrand opposition leader and ex-Labour Minister, Lucia Matibenga, as well as Zimbabwe’s former Deputy Prime Minister Thokozani Khupe, had sought after, but not attained.

It is, by all accounts, something of a miracle that Taruvinga succeeded. She had to endure many odds; personal, cultural, and bureaucratic to attain the position that has played a significant socio-political, as well as economic, role in life in the country.

The late former Zimbabwe Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai and the late Lovemore Matombo are just two Zimbabwean politicians who honed their political skills while incumbents in the powerful position.

For a woman, however, for whom the position came with “criticism, discouragement, name-calling, reminders of African patriarchal society which seem not to be ready… ” according to Taravunga.

“But the fact that it was through a democratic process brings delight. Electoral processes always create contestation, which is the nature and character of democracy,” she explained during the interview in her office.

A technician at the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA), Taravunga rose to the position at the ZCTU through an affiliate union, the Energy Sector Workers Union of Zimbabwe (ESWUZ), which she helped start.

While crediting the extensive training in labour union issues for her abilities to articulate workers’ welfare and rights, Taruvinga did not get an easy start. Attending Masvingo High School for her O-level examinations, she did not get sufficient grades to attend university and instead opted to study electrical and electronics through City and Guilds, obtaining a diploma in Electrical Installations. Today, she is an alumnus of the  Fredrick Eibert- Stiftung, Zimbabwe, and the International Labour Organisation-run International Centre of Training, in Geneva.

Taruvinga admits to having held leadership positions from childhood, thanks to a strong urge to speak for others.

“As early as when I was in primary, I always got into trouble with my teachers for trying to speak against any ill-treatment,” she explained.

“Later in Grade 4, I was appointed a perfect, and this is when I realised that it is always important to be sensitive to other people’s interests and be fair to all.”

The young woman at the helm of Zimbabwe’s most powerful union.

Her involvement in the labour movement dates back to 2010 when she began organising young workers in the energy industry and educating them on the importance of joining trade unions.

Taruvinga is credited with pioneering the registration of the Energy Sector Workers Union of Zimbabwe, or ESWUZ – in 2012 and recruiting members.

Between 2013 and 2019, Taruvinga was the interim national women’s chairperson for ESWUZ and a councillor at the ZCTU. In October 2016, she was elected the first vice-president of the ZCTU.

In March 6, 2018, she was fired from her job at ZESA for demonstrating against non-compliance with collective bargaining agreements and bad corporate governance, before being reinstated a year later.

The 33- year-old is happy that the wall of patriarchy that previously locked women out of leadership in the top union is slowly being broken. Currently, there are ten women in national executive positions at ZCTU, with 141 others elected to the top five positions (praesidium, secretariat, treasury, trustee, or national organising) at affiliate unions.

However, according to Taruvinga, these figures remain appallingly low. Of the 289 leadership positions across ZCTU affiliates, women’s leadership stands at just 33 percent.

Taruvinga is now keen to use her influential position to engender leadership and get women’s voices heard.

‘It is a fact that the local trade union environment is still heavily influenced by patriarchal tendencies inherited from the past. However, as Congress, we have since resolved to fully implement our gender policy which covers a host of policy interventions detailing our stance and response to gender issues in the world of work and the trade unions,“ she says.

Florence Tavuringa delivering her keynote speech on 2022 May day. Photo Credits: Florence Tavuringa

“It is, therefore, our hope and trust that the trade union should deal decisively with sexual harassment issues, gender-based violence, creation of glass ceilings for women, and general stereotyping of women. If need be, we shall embark on affirmative action programs to promote women and young workers.”

The ZCTU Constitution, Gender Policy, Strategic Plan, and resolutions of the Women’s Committee Conference all place women at the core of the organisation. Now Taravangu wants an end to lip-service and wants to see programmes and campaigns at the ZCTU actually empowering women.

Taruvinga has vowed to prove her critics wrong as she looks to strengthen the position of women in the federation.

She believes that one of the key strategies to achieve the objective is to fully operationalise the ZCTU’s already adopted resolution on the empowerment of women, including the full implementation of the union’s gender policy which covers a host of policy interventions detailing the stance and response to gender issues in the world of work.

 “The trade union should deal decisively with sexual harassment issues, gender-based violence, creation of glass ceilings for women, and general stereotyping of women. We shall embark on affirmative action programmes to promote women and young workers,” Taruvinga said.

“It is the understanding of women’s emancipation and knowing that there is no line between the two. I believe that the trade union is an equal opportunity organisation whose cornerstones are underpinned by democracy, accountability, and, more
importantly, participation,” she said.

The ZCTU is the country’s leading federation, with 35 affiliate trade unions. It is credited with playing a crucial role in the socio-economic discourse of the country since the attainment of independence in 1980.  

It was formed on February 28th, 1981, bringing together 52 existing unions. 

In pre-independent Zimbabwe, though the labour movement was largely controlled by the white minority, unions had played a significant role in political agitation, the fight for workers’ welfare, and the nationalist struggle.

After liberation, the ruling party, Zanu-PF, led by the late president Robert Mugabe used the trade union movement’s close association with the liberation movement to help form an umbrella trade union movement to champion the welfare of workers and retain influence in the newly independent country.

ZCTU secretary-general Japhet Moyo explains that the federation has several achievements to its credit, including establishing a legislated social dialogue platform, and the Tripartite Negotiation Forum (Labour, business, and the government) to discuss critical socio-economic issues.

The federation also formed the main opposition political party, Movement for Democratic Change, led by renowned late trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai, who later became the country’s prime minister.

“The federation fought for and won a progressive Labour Act in the 1980s. The union participated in the working people’s convention that led to the democratization of the political landscape, culminating in the establishment of the Movement for Democratic Change led by the now late unionist former prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai,” Moyo said.

“It has trained thousands of shop stewards, paralegals, negotiators, and researchers through the establishment of the Labour and Economic  Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe (LEDRIZ),” he added.

It has also successfully challenged unprogressive legislation in the courts and opposed the levying of workers, played a pivotal role in establishing the National Social Security Authority and founded the biggest informal economy association that represents workers in the informal sector. 

Against this background, Taruvinga’s victory comes at a critical time in the party. According to the former Labour Minister Paurina Mpariwa, the development bears testimony to decades-long advocacy for women’s empowerment.

Florence Tavuringa making a contribution during the ZCTU’s 8th ordinary Congress. Photo Credits: Florence Tavuringa

 “This is a good starting point after over four decades of hard work,” she said.

“I want to believe that the training and advocacy work conducted over the years on women empowerment in the labour movement has paid dividends. I hope that she will continue to encourage other women to join hands with her. Women must lead several other committees in the ZCTU to strengthen her capacity as president,” Mpariwa said.

Another veteran trade unionist, past member of the Commercial Workers Union of Zimbabwe (CWUZ), and former Labour Minister, Lucia Matibenga, expressed excitement at what Taruvinga’s position means for Zimbabwe.

“I believe she was elected on merit and not sympathy; this should be the norm. As women, we are not there yet; more needs to be done to push more women into leadership positions in both the public as well as the private sector, “she said.

“ZCTU… is a small step that serves as an example of how organisations should consider capable women for leadership positions. Miss Taruvinga will serve as a role model to women in general and young women in particular.”

Young workers in the country, like Trymore Musipa from the Railway Artisans’ Union (RAU) talk of Taruvinga making a “positive impact, not only to ZCTU but to the labour struggle at large.”

According to Musipa, Taruvinga may also manage to address an “identity crisis” that has been haunting the ZCTU as an apolitical movement constitutionally mandated to protect the interests of workers by fighting anti-worker government policies, as opposed to fighting the government itself. 

“Taruvinga is bringing back constitutionalism, ideological clarity, and purity. She has so far addressed the long-held hostile relationships between the government and the federation without also making the movement an appendage of the government or ruling party as purported by the misguided and misdirected disciples of air,” Musipa explained.

Soon after her election, Taruvinga crisscrossed the nation, meeting workers through labour forums, listening to their concerns, reinforcing ideological issues, and then pressed the government to find ways to provide workers with inflation-proof wages.

“Last month during the May 1 commemorations, she braved the occasion in front of the Labour Minister who was in attendance and made it clear that inflation had eroded workers’ salaries,” Musipa related.

“She even called for the immediate address of the transport crisis that was haunting workers, and shortly after that, the government liberalised the transport system. I see in her a mother, dedicated to uniting all the workers for the common cause, which is a restoration of their dignity,” he added.

Given the position’s potential as a path to politics, there are already questions over whether Taruvinga has political ambitions.

For now, however, Taruvinga said she remains steadfast in her focus on workers’ rights, especially women.

“My election should inspire all women and especially young workers that collectively, we can achieve,” she concluded.

/bird story agency


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