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South African Trade Unions to Send Mission to Zimbabwe

The Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country's most powerful union federation, says it will send a 20-person fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe, despite that government's threat to prevent delegates from entering the country.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions, known as COSATU, says its delegates will travel Wednesday to Zimbabwe as planned, even though Labor Minister Paul Mangwana says they will be, in his words, kicked out of Zimbabwe.

Spokesman Patrick Craven told VOA, the visit is covered by international conventions and even Zimbabwe law.

"There are international conventions which make clear that missions of this kind, which are not permanent, which are merely to exchange views with people with whom we have a common interest, are entirely legal and there are no grounds, under international conventions, or indeed in Zimbabwe, which would allow the government not to allow this mission into the country," he said.

A similar COSATU mission to Zimbabwe last October was detained after less than a day and bussed out of the country. The Zimbabwe government said COSATU had no business interfering in its internal political affairs and said the federation was a proxy for unnamed western governments.

Mr. Craven says COSATU's goal is to obtain first-hand information about the situation in Zimbabwe.

"To get an accurate picture of what is really going on - the economic situation, the levels of poverty and unemployment, the restrictions on trade union activity that we've heard of, and particularly at the moment the forthcoming elections to see whether conditions for free and fair elections do in fact exist," he added.

Last year, both the South African government and the ruling African National Congress severely criticized COSATU for going to Zimbabwe, this even though COSATU and the ANC are partners in an alliance. This time COSATU won the support of the ANC before confirming the dates of the visit.

A researcher at the independent Institute for Security Studies, Chris Moroleng, says that even though some members of the government remain critical, there has clearly been a shift in strategy within the ANC and the government on Zimbabwe.

"I do believe that with the backing of the party [African National Congress] the fact that the COSATU delegation has expressed an interest in going to Zimbabwe tomorrow, that this will indeed put more pressure on the Zimbabwean authorities to begin considering implementing reforms that will see at least a free and fair environment for elections which are planned for March of 2005,” he noted.

Last year COSATU threatened a blockade of Zimbabwe if the government interfered with its plans.

Mr. Craven told VOA that this is one tactic that COSATU will consider if its delegation is deported from Zimbabwe.

Mr. Moroleng says if this would have a severe impact on the country.

"So a blockade on Beit Bride [border post between SAF and ZIM], just a blockade on Beit Bridge alone would have a significant impact - negative impact - on the Zimbabwean economy which is already reeling from an almost five-year-long depression,” Mr. Moroleng said. “And certainly international links with other sister trade union organizations in the region, for example in Botswana which are directly to the east and to the west of Zimbabwe, could really blockade Zimbabwe and put that economy in a very difficult situation therefore putting pressure on Zimbabwe to consider its position."

Zimbabwe prepares for general elections in March in conditions described by many observers as oppressive and not conducive to a free and fair vote.