A delegation of senior officials from South Africa's largest labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, was deported from Zimbabwe two hours after they arrived at Harare International Airport. The Cosatu leaders say they had come to consult with colleagues from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which has a tense relationship with President Robert Mugabe's government.
All 18 Cosatu leaders, including Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi were issued deportation orders as they tried to enter Zimbabwe.
Their colleagues were watching the scene in the immigration hall from a balcony in the airport building. Both groups of trade unionists waved at each other and shouted greetings of solidarity.
This is the second time a Cosatu delegation has been forced to leave Zimbabwe in the last four months. Last October a smaller and more junior delegation was taken from the airport at night, driven 500 kilometers to the South African border, and dumped in no man's land between the two countries.
Mr. Vavi, speaking on his cell phone while immigration officials processed the deportation orders, said he was glad he had seen with his own eyes conditions in Zimbabwe. He said he and Cosatu would return to Zimbabwe again.
Lovemore Matombo, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, said he was shocked they had not been allowed in. He said he had written to labor minister Paul Mangwana, as a courtesy, informing him of the visit. He said the minister did not reply to the letter and he only learned through the local press that the Cosatu delegation was not welcome.
He said there was no law which required that trade unionists, or any other South Africans, needed prior permission to visit Zimbabwe.
South Africa says it has engaged in a process of "quiet diplomacy" with Mr. Mugabe's government. But opposition groups say this approach has not improved democracy in Zimbabwe.
Mr. Matombo said it was important that the Cosatu leadership tasted some of the reality of every day life for ordinary Zimbabweans.
"This is the most dramatic event we have seen for 2005. No one ever expected the government would react in a negative way, but nevertheless we will meet Cosatu in every different form," he said. "We need to warn the government that the process they have started might be very, very catastrophic. I don't see the future being in any way bright enough for the relations between the two governments, although the South African government says it doesn't mind what is happening. In the end I hope the SA government will get sense regarding the behavior of the Zimbabwe government."
Zimbabwe's trade union leaders say they will go to South Africa Thursday to consult with Cosatu.
Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change emerged out of the labor movement to become a major political force in 1999. MDC President Morgan Tsvangirai was secretary general of the ZCTU before he went into politics.