Rumors and Undertones of Political Dialogue: Are We Headed for Talks?

Rumors and Undertones of Political Dialogue: Are We Headed for Talks?


Two seemingly disconnected events have again ignited possibilities that there could be a thawing of relations amongst political parties. Does it mean there could be some form of dialogue between the MDC-A and ZANU-PF in the making? It started off with the MDC-A’s President Nelson Chamisa in his address over COVID-19. In the address he made it clear that his focus is not on ‘political gamesmanship’ but instead it was a very conciliatory speech hitting the right notes and of course here and there raising the inconsistencies in government. Then there was the Tendai Biti address- for the first time he addressed those in ZANU-PF as friends and was quick to say that they are ready to engage in talks. Could these speeches be a well orchestrated wooing process or just mere coincidence? Only time will tell. Analysts have also weighed in. Ian Scoones[1] recently wrote about the need or possibilities of South Africa intervening as an honest broker on the issue of dialogue and in the article he intimated a departure from the Mbeki era quiet diplomacy towards maybe a more robust engagement with no liberation movement hangover. Alex Magaisa[2], another popular analyst and blogger also weighed in and urged caution on the part of the MDC-A and challenged the real role of the MDC-T in the dialogue.
For now we focus on what that particular dialogue should look like if take if it ever takes place. We must acknowledge from the beginning that the nation-building project in Zimbabwe has stalled. Instead,  we have had what was meant to be political sideshows becoming the main game in Harare. Everything is about partisan politics. Very little attention is devoted to what government is doing especially if it is in any way positive. In the process the country has since the turn of the century experienced a deep rooted economic decline and an extensive social crisis, including diminished incomes and consumption, food insecurity, deteriorating health conditions and educational services, increased emigration, and a host of other social problems.
Instead of focusing on reforms- we have been subjected an escalation of political confrontation (including violence) between the ruling and opposition party, the state and civil society and the state and sections of the ‘international community’. Arrests of oppositional figures and even journalists of an independent streak- has become the order of the day. COVID-19 related deaths of ZANU-PF leaders have been welcomed on social media. For the first time we celebrated the death of our own and even spent hours justifying it. It is indeed the age of confusion or expression of our anger.
Meanwhile, the overall scope for dialogue among the key opposed political actors has increasingly diminished, although various dialogue initiatives have been attempted with limited success. Dialogue between the state and others over a variety of political, civil, social and economic challenges has increasingly been limited. Instead, the relations between the state and others (inclusive of political parties and civil society) have deteriorated leading to ‘dis-engagement’ in many cases and increased confrontational stances on both sides. Moreover, civil society has also been affected by the wider political polarisation, such that there are deep divisions over the nature of state-civil society relations, over the role of civil society in redressing the wider ‘crisis’ and, over whether or not and how to engage the state. The Chamisa/Biti speeches have ignited some hope that there could still be some prospects for dialogue after all.


Essentially the country remains in a political gridlock since the July 30 elections. Up to now the defacto main opposition party led by Advocate Nelson Chamisa continues to raise the illegitimacy of the current President based on claims that the elections were rigged. There continues to be growing country risk factors associated with perceived and real lack of adherence to human rights standards required under both domestic constitutional imperatives and state obligations under international human rights law. Repeated scenes of post-election violent reprisals to national protests and the more recent arrests of opposition politicians, at times on laws that do not exist has effectively nullified the potency in the narrative of “the new dawn”. Instead, according to others there has been a reset in ZANU-PF’s oppressive machinery. Maybe it was all along meant to push/drive them to the negotiating table.

However, it has not been a bed of roses in ZANU-PF.  Following the expulsion of Joyce Mujuru and her supporters from both the party and Government in December 2014, and that of Mugabe and his increasingly influential wife Grace and their Generation 40 (G40) cabal, the victorious Lacoste faction appears to be experiencing the scourge of factionalism, allegedly involving the President and his Deputy. This effectively creates two-centres of power if the allegations of a feud are true.

However, the real crisis is probably not political but rather about the economy. The Finance Minister has done all he can to balance the books but he has not been able to mobilise significant foreign direct investment. Ongoing attempts at stabilisation and growth through the Transitional Stabilisation Program (TSP) and now the National Development Strategy (NDS1) have instead contributed towards high levels of inequality, the total collapse of a middle class (supported by white & blue collar salaries) and worsening of conditions of survival at the bottom of the pyramid. Attempts at improving agriculture through Pvumbvudza may yield positive returns but only for those in the rural areas.

Context- Halting Attempts towards Dialogue

There seems to be no coherent solution in sight. There are currently  four main sites or platforms of dialogue; first- the Political Actors Dialogue (PolAD) comprising of the political parties that participated in the 2018 elections where the MDC-Alliance, the strongest opposition party is not involved. Second- the Tripartite Negotiating Forum (TNF), comprising of government, business and labour probably provides a basis for thinking through ways of engaging in sustained non-partisan dialogue focused on developing a national framework for national development.  The advantage of the TNF route is that the TNF Bill, which seeks to create an independent statutory body for social dialogue has gone through Parliament With enough support and clarity, it could play the vital role on enabling national cohesion and renewal so vital to efforts national development. Third- the Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC), the platform is made up of experts from different sectors of society and its meant to be a platform to advise the president on policy direction. Fourth- the churches comprising of Heads of the Christian Denominations in Zimbabwe (ZHOCD), namely, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference (ZCBC), the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ) and the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) produced a detailed document, “The Zimbabwe We Want: Towards A National Vision for Zimbabwe. A Discussion Document” in 2006. With the addition of the Union for Development of Apostolic Churches in Zimbabwe (UDACIZA), the four church-based groups officially launched the National Convergence Platform (NPC) as a non-partisan forum to foster convergence among non-political party stakeholders on national issues on December 13, 2019. Provincial consultative meetings coordinated by the ZHOCD in all the 10 provinces served as a build up to the launch. This was seen as a basis for engaging political players on the way forward in resolving the unravelling political and socio-economic crisis.

What Should Inclusive Dialogue Look Like?

Probably one of the biggest weaknesses of the previous rounds of dialogue has been their exclusion of other critical constituencies which are not political parties. The dialogue/negotiations at Lancaster House in the 1977-79 and the Thabo Mbeki led round of negotiations were mostly political party focused. The goal of any meaningful dialogue  should be to contribute towards the development of a comprehensive national consensus on an inclusive recovery and transformation agenda. As mentioned we are not even certain if there will  be a new round of negotiations but if it all it happens it should ideally contribute towards:

  • Political reforms that ensure free and fair elections
  • De-escalating polarisation and a framework for political parties to work together in implementing political reforms
  • Economic reforms that lead towards stability in prices, creation of employment and improvement of conditions of living
  • A widely accepted framework for dealing with historical injustice
  • Improved social service delivery

Both government and other parties need to show seriousness and commitment to engagement. This must be based on clearly demonstrated and adequate political will. The parties should also commit to invest into the necessary intellectual and material resources required to pursue a protracted engagement. The general approach should be to seek genuine resolution of critical conflictual issues.

The parties should endeavour to articulate their views, whatever their conceptual framework, ideological perspective and political or social affiliation, on the basis of adequate and transparent facts and/or substantiation, and rigorous analysis. The ethical framework of engagement should emphasise truth and conflict resolution, rather than the pursuit of polarising strategies (and/or petty point scoring), which aggravate the conflict, such as propagandism, the isolation and humiliation of the actors (e.g. labelling, deliberate attempts to discredit individuals or organisations, etc). This will usually require introspection by all actors and a tolerant stance during initial discussions, which may be expected to articulate worrying allegations about or perceptions of each side of the actors.

 Possible Triggers of Dialogue

There is no sufficient basis to identify one factor over another as a possible trigger of dialogue. Rather we see a combination of factors as possibly contributing to the need for the dialogue amongst political parties and broader civil society. The list below provides an initial mapping of what could possible be a trigger for dialogue:

Economic Implosion

As already mentioned the Zimbabwean economy is in free-fall. The local currency has lost value, it now trades at 82.7 to the US Dollar. In the meantime salaries for those in the public and private sector have not been adjusted. Prices of basic goods have gone up by approximately 470% since the beginning of 2020. Over the past two years more companies have closed than opened. Social service delivery has also collapsed. Many public hospitals do not have basic medicines and equipment required by medical doctors such as surgical gloves. Nurses  and Doctors spent most of 2020 either on strike or engaging their employer for improved salaries and working conditions.

COVID-19 related health provision challenges have also worsened the strain on government. The previous Minister of Health was suspended and eventually dismissed from government on allegations of corruption. Could the economic crisis be the trigger for a dialogue?

It is important to remember that the economic implosion of 2008 created a basis for ZANU-PF to enter into a dialogue for a Government National Unity (GNU). However, the current round of the crisis is slightly different- supermarkets are full and there is some re-investment into hospitals thanks to COVID-19. The GoZ always pinned its hope on improved flows of FDI and also an aid package. Both have not materialized.

 Untenable Protests & Arrests of Opposition Figures

There have been two major protests since the 2018 elections. In both instances the government responded in a heavy handed manner- leading to loss of lives. The message from government (especially the army) is we will not tolerate any dissent. The response is also an exhibition of the government’s fear of the power of protests. Their response has always been preemptive. The public anger over an increasing number of corruption cases, worsening economic conditions and collapse of social service delivery may lead to an increase in the number of protests. The recent revelations/allegations of corruption in the purchasing of medical equipment to respond to COVID, abuse of office in the allocation of stands, unpaid farm mechanisation loans that were given to the political elite have created a fertile ground for protests. The government, has used a battery of laws but has mostly used the ‘arrest, threaten, frustrate and release’ approach. Many vocal opposition figures have pending cases at the courts and at times these are eventually dismissed. Howver the government tactic serves to frustrate and sap energy out of would-be protesters. Furthermore, COVID-19 related lockdowns also created a sufficient to pre-empt any attempts of holding protests.  The public anger displayed on social media platforms suggest the need for an Indaba for people to find each other.

Increase in the Number of COVID-19 Infections

Zimbabwe currently has 33 338 cases and of these 26 044(78%) have recovered, 1 217(3.65%) have died and 6,077 are active cases. The numbers are still lower as compared to South Africa but there is a possibility that this could be due to the fact that the number of total tested is still very low compared to other countries in the region. However, even though the numbers are significantly lower than what is pertaining in South Africa the January figures and also deaths of high profile politicians and business people created a state of panic and exposed the real challenges in health delivery. A further surge in the number of infections may create alarm and government will be forced to reach out for assistance from its neighbors or international partners.

Incentives for Dialogue

Economic Package

The Zimbabwean economy has been limping for close to two decades. There are many reasons for the meltdown, inclusive of governance issues, collapse of property rights due to land reform, flight of capital due to uncertainty over country’s capital markets, inadequate re-investment into upstream agro-value chains since agrarian reform and incoherency in managing public resources.

An economic package that is tied to political dialogue and reforms could potentially contribute towards dialogue. The current GoZ has attempted (albeit in a halting manner) to carryout reforms mining (ownership and repatriation of profits), privatisation of loss making state owned enterprises and payment of compensation to former large scale farm owners. However, these measures have not yielded the international support that they so desperately needs. Many would-be donors have insisted on visible political reforms. A well structured dialogue could contribute towards securing consensus on the political reforms that are needed.

External Mediation

ZANU-PF has since the turn of the century always felt or projected itself as a victim of global power politics. The former President was famous for singling out the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom-Tony Blair and George Bush as the architects of Zimbabwe’s isolation. Many analysts have dismissed this as self-serving rhetoric on the part of Mugabe. However, there is need to revisit how ZANU-PF thinks and operates. Their policies, at times, mimic the Rhodesian era policies under UDI when they were under the siege of sanctions and also fighting a guerrilla enemy. The Rhodesians, like ZANU-PF also did not trust easily.

Any successful dialogue would need a trusted interlocutor. The same interlocutor should also be trusted by the MDC-Alliance. There are complaints that former President Mbeki seemed to bend backwards to ZANU-PF which led to an imperfect partnership. That also would need to be addressed. Probably instead of one interlocutor the dialogue champions could consider a committee of three equal partners accepted by both parties. Furthermore, there would be need to demonstrate that the external mediation process is being backed by countries prepared to provide support once it has been successfully concluded.

Lifting of Sanctions

There is no consensus on how the sanctions imposed against Zimbabwe by the USA (ZIDERA2) and by the European Union have negatively affected the economy. However, as a demonstration of goodwill the new US government could lift sanctions unconditionally or make a commitment to lift sanctions once the dialogue process has been successful. It is also important to note that during GNU the MDC leadership (Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara) unsuccessfully called for the lifting of the sanctions. The rhetoric within ZANU-PF is that sanctions have immensely contributed to the hemorrhaging of the economy and it will likely be one of their main conditions for dialogue. It is incumbent upon the parties organising the dialogue to explore ways in which they can also have a parallel with the US government on the issue of sanctions.

Debt Forgiveness

Zimbabwe has managed to clear its arrears with the IMF but still owes a significant amount to the Paris Club of Lenders. A  written commitment to forgive debt if certain political reforms are carried out or engage in dialogue may induce ZANU-PF into dialogue.

Possible Constraints to Dialogue

 Dominance of Hardline Position within ZANU-PF

The hardline element within ZANU-PF may be resistant to dialogue for several reasons. First- the MDC-A is seen as a party at cross purposes with the values of the liberation struggle. In many instances they refer to the MDC-A as a sellout party (liberation struggle language). There would be need to engage this faction especially the war veteran wing of ZANU-PF.  Second- the hardliners are also engaged in an existential fight within ZANU-PF where they see themselves being sidelined in favour of a new crop of technocrats and also former ZIPRA military officers. For instance, none of the service chiefs in the army are from ZANLA. President Mnangagwa seems to prefer working with former ZIPRA commanders-probably because the majority come from Midlands. Third, it is a well-known fact that once one is out of office (party structures and government) you will have no access to extracting benefits from the state. It is difficult to officially retire from politics in ZANU-PF. There is no coherent support structure to support their lavish lifestyles once they are out of power.

Challenges to the Legitimacy of Incumbent

The MDC-A has consistently challenged the electoral victory of President Mnangagwa. When the President comes to address parliament they walk away. It is most likely that both parties will raise this issue as a condition before they can engage in dialogue. However, the recent remarks by the Vice President of the MDC-A Tendai Biti suggest that this may not be an issue anymore.

Clash of Values/Ideologies

At a rhetorical level there seems to be a divergence of views between the parties- on the one ZANU-PF seeks to portray the MDC-A as a sellout party working with the ‘enemy’ and is opposed to addressing colonial imbalance. The MDC-A on the other hand portrays ZANU-PF as a party led by corrupt and authoritarian elements who have become the oppressors. Furthermore the MDC-A unlike ZANU-PF speaks the language of rights whilst ZANU-PF speaks of redistribution. However, according to an analysis of political party manifestos both parties agree on the need for economic reforms and the role of the market. It will be incumbent upon the facilitators to establish common positions amongst the parties and seek a consensus on what should be done in areas where they agree.

Proposed Areas of Focus for the Negotiations/Dialogue

Governance Reforms

  • Activating provisions in the constitution
  • Ensuring executive constraints- the current government prefers to bypass legislation and instead pass Statutory Instruments
  • Strenghten electoral laws and processes
  • Create adequate measure to reduce corruption

On the Economy

  • Improve conditions for foreign investment
  • Securing an economic rescue package
  • Resolve the land compensation issue

Dealing with Historical Injustices

  • Create a widely accepted mechanism and roadmap for dealing with atrocities that were committed by government in the 1980s in Matabeleland and Midlands.
  • Develop mechanisms for early warnings of potential conflicts and disputes and to take appropriate measures to prevent them;
  • Take measures to conciliate and mediate disputes among communities, organizations, groups, and individuals.
  • Work towards inclusive healing through a government mandated reconciliation platform

 Resuscitating Social Service

  • Establishment of new partnerships for a transformative social-economic development framework
  • Response to the crisis in education through (a) ensuring that tertiary institutions are economically viable/sustainable; (b) revitalize vocational training (c) re-orient education towards an entrepreneurial mindset
  • Increase budget allocations towards social service delivery
  • Revisit 1980s era planning for health which emphasised the creation of a balance between the curative and preventative approach
  • Establish new partnerships with the private sector and increase investment towards the creation of local drug manufacturing capacity
  • Revive low cost housing schemes

 Path Towards Creating National Interest

Evidence suggests that the current silo and expert based approaches towards public policy making, coupled with polarisation, have combined to yield an under-performing economy characterized by tensions, lack of trust in public institutions and processes and mutual suspicion from both state and non-state parties. There is need for a more inclusive process that enhances the participation of Zimbabweans from all walks of life to engage in public processes and collective problem solving. A process of inclusive and sustained social dialogue could contribute towards a more acceptable development compact. The  dialogue should focus on:

  • Nurturing a non-partisan national interest
  • A collective understanding of the factors inhibiting inclusive transformation
  • Developing a national vision of what it will take to achieve inclusive transformation that ensures equitable access to social goods such as health, education, housing, water, etc.
  • Nurturing a culture of dialogue