Friends of Zimbabwe need to facilitate a national dialogue

Anybody who truly cares for Zimbabwe and the collective hopes of its people should be deeply concerned by where the country is at the moment. Nobody would like to see the country slide back into the pre-2008 troubled waters. If it does, God forbid, lives would be lost. That is what is at stake.

The above sentiment try as best as possible to capture the current national mood. How can the Zimbabwe issues be resolved? Although no one has clear answers, high-level political dialogues and settlements can only bring a temporary reprieve but will leave the problem still rooted in the ground. What is needed instead, is an honest, open, inclusive and broad-based dialogue among Zimbabweans. Both the SADC and the international community can play a part in supporting and facilitating this process. This process, it is proposed, could in the long run help uproot the multiple problems rooted in our history that has a very dark underbelly.

Historical roots of Zimbabwe’s problems

Since 2000 Zimbabwe went through a sustained political strife until 2008. The strife of 2008 prompted the international community and in particular the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to engage all the political actors in Zimbabwe to resolve the crisis, and that in turn resulted in a political agreement that established an inclusive government that took office in February 2009.

However, what we quickly forget is that Zimbabwe has been the scene of political conflict for the past 50 years, with peace times simply being occasional episodes in a general drama of pain and suffering. In the 1950s we were starting out a more civilized path of respecting all our people, a trend which was abruptly derailed when radicals and hardliners on both sides of the political spectrum chose violence to decide the contestation over power. As the World Bank recently summed it aptly, the country simply does not have core systems to resolve political and economic (power) contests. This has a history behind it.

As David Coltart recently put it across, ‘It is shameful that we as white Rhodesians treated great men and women like Enoch Dumbutshena and countless others as second class citizens. In doing so we squandered the opportunity of securing a peaceful transition to majority rule and condemned Zimbabwe to a brutal civil war which poisoned our nation, poison which persists to this day through men (on both sides let it be said) who have had their minds bent by a bloody war. As a result we have suffered 50 years of trauma’.

In the 1970s, the country, known as Rhodesia then, endured a civil war when black nationalists fought to overthrow a racist minority white government. Both sides committed atrocities, including crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture, and some 50000 people died in the conflict. Under the Smith government, the rule of law was often not observed. The declaration of rights, in a series of constitutional enactments, was not justiciable.

Fundamental human rights were violated with impunity. At independence in 1980 no-one was held to account for the crimes committed prior to independence. In the 1980s there was a further civil conflict in the south west of the country in which some argue that genocide was committed, and certainly torture and crimes against humanity were widespread, and a further estimated 20000 people were killed. The culture of impunity started in 1980 continued as no-one has ever been held to account for those post-independence crimes.

As Coltart (ibid) puts it, ‘Zimbabwe has gone downhill economically for the last 50 years because we have allowed narrow partisan or racist interests to dominate out political discourse. We are the classic example of a house divided, falling. Until we end that, the massive potential of this great Nation will not be realized’. According to the World Bank, Zimbabwe has a solid backbone of infrastructure and human capacity, but little if any institutional capacity, especially in core government functions, service delivery to citizens, and the private sector.

Whereas, the pre-independence conflict culminated in a political settlement called national unity and reconciliation and the pre-2008 conflict gave rise to a political settlement often known as the Global Political Agreement, this paper argues that a political settlement is not adequate to resolve the current state of disquiet and neither can a cosmetic truth and reconciliation process. Instead there is an urgent need for a NATIONAL DIALOGUE on issues that matter to the people, right from villages, town halls and the state house.

For us to chart a course towards a more secure, prosperous and sustainable future it really is time for us to start again a little higher, so that as a Nation we once again strive to achieve the ideals and principles that we have always aspired for. When we do so, one could never doubt, that all the promises and good that Zimbabwe possesses will be realized.

As a nation we are all affected, and none can hope to solve these challenges on their own therefore now is the time to “shake off complacency” and throw aside old habits that reinforce the status quo.

Economic problems

At the moment, Zimbabwe is faced with multiple challenges, not least of which is the economy, which is hanging on the cliff edge. According to leading economists, the economic prognosis is very bad. The banking system is showing signs of severe stress and failure. The Reserve Bank is insolvent and until it is recapitalized it cannot support any of the banks that are facing cash problems. A month ago one Commercial Bank was unable to pay out its depositors, last week the list had grown to 5, 2 of these have virtually stopped functioning. The Banks now have 35 per cent non performing debt, they owe each other money through the interbank market and they are owed hundreds of millions of dollars by the State organisations that have just had hundreds of millions of debt written off in their balance sheets. There is simply no good news in the local markets and the sense of crisis on the streets of our cities is palpable.

Regarding the diamond revenue, there is grim news that the easy pickings from alluvial beds are now exhausted and what remains are billions of carats of diamonds locked into a hard conglomerate that is very difficult to mine and process without destroying the stones and producing a very expensive diamond laden dust. The existing mines are all in trouble and are scaling back on their operations.

According to a leading economist, the Reserve Bank’s reported $2,4 billion debt might throw a spanner in the works of the current delicate negotiations with the IMF. An IMF review has just been concluded, another will take place in the New Year, and the government must be able to report progress in fulfilling the undertakings given earlier this year when the IMF SMP was agreed and signed. The temptation to go back to printing money, to use the remaining balance of the SDR reserves for recurrent expenditure, is huge. However either action would simply trigger the final disintegration of what is left of the economy.

Failure of Politics and representative democracy

As the country fumbles through economic darkness, there is no word from the opposition, the MDC. Although one would imagine that they are currently re-grouping and re-charging, being quiet at such a crucial juncture is certainly a huge disappointment to those who expected them to be laying policy alternatives on the table, and holding the government to account for its policies or lack of them. The MDC-T has gone missing in this crucial moment dominated by post-election economic inertia. There are no signs of frontline structured opposition politics; instead, they have set themselves to react to Zanu PF's failings instead of taking the initiative and guide from their own agenda.

The failure of the opposition is symptomatic of the wider failure of representative democracy not only in Zimbabwe but in the region and the world at large. Although representative democracy continues to offer an ideal framework for governance and has served major democracies very well, it is currently facing challenges across whole spectrum of established and emerging democracies as well as in fragile states such as Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe has repeatedly gone through a series of election cycles characterized by violence, voters’ disenfranchisement and electoral fraud. With very little if any institutional capacity and systems to resolve political contests, this has left most Zimbabweans questioning the benefit of participating in elections and value of democracy generally. The failure of representative democracy points out to serious flaws in the extent to which citizens have been engaged on issues that truly matter to them. A lack of participation in civic affairs, local and national dialogues has produced a placid population that is amenable to political indoctrination, and that lacks the assertiveness to exercise the right to political participation and change their own government.

While there is a desire for political participation, Zimbabwe lacks a robust and independent normative framework that facilitates national dialogue on issues that matter. 5 rounds of the Afrobarometer between 2011 and 2013, show high demand for democracy, desires for participation (at least as voters), deep skepticism about the state’s ability to deliver public goods and services, increasing reliance on traditional authorities as a bridge to central government, and an increasing disinterest in the youth in conventional politics.

The challenges to representative democracy are not unique to Zimbabwe but are also reflected in other countries where in recent decades electoral turnout, party membership and partisan identification have declined. There has been sustained democratic backsliding in the SADC region. The recent endorsement of an undemocratic election in Zimbabwe is a clear indication of that backsliding. Globally, changing culture and technology also reflects itself in the democratic process.

Also in most Western European countries profound changes in the economy, society and technology are creating a new political culture leading to detachment from the formal political process, most evident amongst the disadvantaged in society. It is also apparent amongst those who are politically active but who often choose to channel their activism elsewhere rather than through political parties. In the USA, the recent government shutdown, increased citizens disenchantment with party politics, which has been characterized by severe polarization.

While there is no doubt that representative democracy should and will remain the ideal international framework for governments including Zimbabwe, there is a need to address the causes of this backsliding bottom up. This, in our view, lies in creative approaches to citizen engagement between the elections. Where appropriate, national policy needs to be more accessible to people through greater use of engagement mechanisms that provide opportunities for people to participate in issues that affect them across the country.

At the national level, policy-making is often several steps removed from everyday experience. If done properly this would help link the bridge between lofty values of human rights and democracy to the issue of service delivery, directly engages the attention of citizens. However this cannot be achieved without a double-barreled approach, to enthuse citizens to participate but also enhance the capacity of state institutions to engage. Although Zimbabwean parliament has a weak avenue for such engagement, Zimbabwe lacks the basic infrastructure such as information technology to facilitate citizen engagement with state institutions.

Need for a new approach on Zimbabwe?

Being in the midst of a period of great economic and political consequence, Zimbabwe is facing a test of unprecedented proportions and an existential crisis unlike any it has experienced in its long and tumultuous history. There is a need for creative approaches in averting a human disaster but the question is; where do we start as a nation? Periods of historical convergence such as the one Zimbabwe is undergoing can also bring about lasting solutions, if people come together and realise that through their collective hopes, they can drive away fear and usher a nation into a new season. The current challenges cannot be solved by another political settlement that is not inclusive and broad-based but by a citizens dialogue both at national and local levels. Such a dialogue could be akin to a citizens jury or may assume any form provided people’s current grievances are adequately addressed and citizens are fully involved in shaping the future they would like to see.

In charting a course towards a national dialogue, there is an urgent need to recall on Zimbabwe’s founding values and the vision we all held at independence. The vision and the values are found President Mugabe’s pre-independence speech when he said ‘If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you……I, therefore, wish to appeal to all of you to respect each other and act in promotion of national unity rather than negation of that unity”.

These words and the rest of his speech encapsulated the whole discourse of universal values of peace, freedom, social progress, equal rights and human dignity, enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which are no less valid today than when, over half a century ago, those documents were drafted by representatives of many different nations and cultures.

The solution to this national crisis lies in an inclusive national dialogue where we remind each other of the nation’s founding values. Shared values define a nation and provide a moral compass in times of trouble. A value-based leader’s outlook is not warped by the vicissitudes of time or the environmental demands. A value-based leader would rather be alienated from others to be true to self just as Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘When I lay down the reigns of this administration, I want to have one friend left and that friend is inside me’.

Zimbabwe needs to embrace its founding values and discard exclusive, totalitarian and racist policies. As David Coltart recently said, we have more than enough Zimbabwean talent to find solutions to our problems – we have tens of thousands of Zimbabwean citizens, living both within and without Zimbabwe, who want ZIMBABWE to develop, who have a deep rooted passion and commitment to ZIMBABWE and who are ready to put their intellect and capital to work here. They have the ability to get OUR industries, mines, farms, hospitals, schools and tourist resorts working again. They have the desire to put ZIMBABWE first, not some foreign nation.

The government needs to build a broad national consensus and implement policies which will build domestic confidence and which will enable them to tap into this vast pool of national talent. We need to realize that our people are our greatest asset. A nation can have all the minerals in the world but if those minerals are not developed by clever, talented, dedicated, patriotic, honest and passionate citizens – of all races – they will just be squandered.

The government needs to initiate an honest national dialogue with all our nation's people. A national dialogue can sit in the current Zimbabwean constitutional framework, which provides a normative framework for citizens’ engagement. A national dialogue can be the basis for the next stages of constitutional renewal focusing on the importance of strengthening citizens participation and democracy through demand for strict adherence to constitutionalism. Active participation by as many people as possible in national processes is essential for a healthy democracy as it encourages a shared understanding, builds cohesion and instills confidence in the institutions and the people who are elected to represent us.

Post published in: Politics

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