The Sunday News
On 17 May 2019 the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, His Excellency Cde Emmerson Mnangagwa launched the Political Actors Dialogue, dubbed POLAD. The dialogue seeks to facilitate a conversation on social and political cohesion in a country that is still in transition.
Undoubtedly, Operation Restore Legacy is still in motion and part of its determinants is the past elections and their credibility, a reformed political environment and culture, new models to policy architecture and adherence to good governance.
Political dialogues are not new to Zimbabwe, where they borrow from the traditional culture of Idale/dare where issues are resolved through arbitration, adjudication, mediation and negotiation. Learning from history, on 26 August 1975, the Victoria Falls Conference took place aboard a South African Railways train at the centre of the bridge, breaking on the same day, it arguably did not produce any tangible result because both sides, the regime of the day and the fighters blamed each other.
This was followed by another dialogue held in Geneva in October 1976. This too, while it stands as a backdrop of the draft Lancaster Constitution, its intentions were a flop and it was indefinitely adjourned. It is on 21 December 1979 that one of the historical political dialogues yields, with its product being an agreement for a ceasefire, the creation and international recognition of the Republic of Zimbabwe, permission of Nationalists to stand as electoral candidates and the rental of the draft constitution. This marked the beginning of an end; the end of systematic oppression of blacks and the beginning of a new power matrix, one that mainly involved blacks competing to be conferred with a mandate to govern the majority through a system that uphold fairness, equity and equality, but above all, the respect of the rule of law.
While the afore mentioned dialogue (conferences) all point to attempts to settle physical conflict between the nationalists and the colonisers, every political dialogue emerges as a result of conflict. Conflict is not limited to loss of lives in dissenting quarters, physical violence where the injured are recorded, displacement, or visible harm, it also refers to toxic feelings towards each other, disinterest to co-operation where it is expected, fragmented collective efforts in a social organisation such as a country and absence of trust in each other; that is how simply conflict can be extensively defined without stressing much on what Johan Galtung teaches about positive and negative peace. With that said, all political dialogue is conflict resolution, where everyone affected should actively participate.
It brings to fore lessons of the Unity Accord signed on 22 December 1987 between Zanu and PF-Zapu which also resolved a debilitating conflict. Equally, the 2008 Memorandum of Agreement between Zanu-PF and MDC-T and MDC resolved another political conflict that had scarred the country, but the dialogue, with parties actively participating, yielded the most memorable period in this country — it heralded a bit of sanity.
Memorably, Operation Restore Legacy is still in transit and within it, political dialogue is a tool that potentially would stamp the destination of that transition. Dialogues have always been central in transitions. When countries have been long lodged in conflict, dialogues facilitate the transition from conflict to peace and as history reflects, all dialogues have either failed or supplied deliverables and measurables. The current POLAD, no different from the past dialogues, seeks to resolve an impasse on politics, economics and social beliefs. The impasse is exclusively seen on the actions of both August 1 2018 and January 14 2019 where riots have winnowed the country into a place laden with insecurity where the popular space that advocates for social justice easily turn into vicious arena that threaten both the State and those who should be represented. Such warrants the need of a POLAD; a national dialogue. But the question is, does this political dialogue translate into social and economic cohesion?
Whether a national dialogue has actually succeeded is often a contentious question. The outcomes of such dialogue will probably be intangible, however, may include the strengthening of a culture of debate and free speech; the breaking of taboo issues which after the dialogue may be more openly discussed; the entrenchment of certain norms of inclusion and representation in politics of marginalised groups, and, the ability to keep all the political actors inside the political process.
In some cases, the dialogue process may not reach its formal goals but may still manage to avert conflict and to convince political actors to continue engaging with the political process. Possibly, in an extensive case, this dialogue may reach all its formal goals but fail somewhere because it would not have included some political forces. This is the catch-22 Zimbabwe is in. How do you not compromise dialogue standards and its atmosphere by factoring in the voice of an egoistic political player- MDC-Alliance, yet they represent some constituency?
The trade-off is clearly a standoff off on levels of diplomacy, public interest and power display. It has to be handled diplomatically, yet the interests of the public whose voice is missing are catered for, however, not ignoring that politics is about capturing power, consolidating your base and crushing opposition — that’s what it is realistically.
To the extent that it is possible to draw general conclusions, one may say that the many successful dialogue processes that contributed to peaceful transitions were usually underpinned by a shared understanding among key political actors on principles, which they then sought to consolidate through an inclusive and participatory conference. In cases where an elite agreement was missing, dialogue processes could not independently alter existing power balances and lead to peaceful transitions.
In any case, peace-building by the means of a political dialogue is a demanding and arduous process with great possibilities — but only when attention to the details and process precedes action. POLAD will not directly culminate to economic yields but will be an integral activity that provides assurance that economic discussions can begin. Its product(s) will declare the start of many conversations that will enable citizens to trust public and economic institutions, politics and political leaders and funnel national self-esteem.