A Framework for Dialogue: The Indispensable Resource for Zimbabwe’s Necessary Transition

Political polarisation in Zimbabwe stands at unsustainable levels. As anywhere else we see it, political polarisation is toxic and choking. It leads to stalemates and counter-productive outcomes – zero sum games of grand proportions. Engagement invariably becomes about labels: to which political party does one belong, and ideas are accepted or rejected based on the identity of the profferer. One needs not look beyond the legitimacy questions, where the main opposition is challenging the President’s legitimacy, and the President’s camp is insisting that acceptance of legitimacy is a precondition for any form of engagement. So the latter says “ticharamba tichingotonga” and the former says we will throw “jecha” into that tenure – a clear case of political players hellbent on proving a point to each other.

Because of where we have now reached: an individualistic society with the majority focusing on the next meal; the politics of identity and personalities; the refusal to find common ground and put national interests to the fore; and a political elite thriving on public resources belonging to a disempowered and helpless public, one can now say it is close to impossible for any one individual or political outfit to solve a problem fossilised over decades and counting. The sooner this is realised and accepted, the closer we may be to a solution. Bar a few denialists, the average reasonable, observant and concerned person in Zimbabwe agrees that the economy is in bad shape, free falling at the 2008 rate primarily owing to issues of governance – a phenomenon Zimbabweans understand only too well. Politically, oppression by the governors using the state machinery is apparent. The country’s butchered and battered policing is predicated on violence and abuse of people’s constitutional rights. The rule of law is shaky.

How we came to this point is a subject of contestation. Being students of history as we ought to be, it is important to understand how we got here. Even more important is how we move forward. What is quite apparent is that winner (legitimate or otherwise)-take-all approaches have borne no fruits. Perhaps out of realisation of that, or deepening poverty, increasingly the word dialogue is being mentioned, in political circles, in mainstream media, in churches, in offices, in the township sand lines and on street market stalls – just everywhere. Whatever that means, and whatever the origins of that sentiment, the consensus-building that seems to be taking place around dialogue is critical. Many are beginning to see that dialogue is a resource. Absent in the discussions thus far has been conceptual clarity around practicalities of what national dialogue entails and why we need it, and more pertinently, how it should be practically employed. It must be said at the outset that national dialogue, as with constitution-making processes, do not and must not necessarily follow similar patterns globally. An effective process is one that is contextualised to the exigencies of the day and place, in this case, present day Zimbabwe.

The social anthropology of oppression seems to point to failure to imagine one as the oppressed, experiencing how it feels. Similarly, how we miss each other’s points and arguments, and how we fight over political identity and belonging, is as much attributable to failure and refusal to put ourselves in the shoes of the other. The rich fail and refuse to put themselves in the shoes of the poor, the ruling elite in the shoes of the opposition and vice-versa, the governors in the shoes of the governed, blacks in the shoes of whites and vice-versa, and the locals in the shoes of the “foreigners”. This is what has underlined oppression since time immemorial, from the oppression of blacks, to the oppression of women. What we need is to place ourselves in the shoes of others, and seek to understand and see the world the way they see it, and appreciate their pains and aspirations.

The kind of dialogue Zimbabwe so desperately yearns for is one of a national out-look, not one confined to frontline political players. Though some see it that way, it is not dialogue between the two political contenders to solve disagreements between themselves that is needed. It is dialogue of Zimbabweans across the breadth and length of the political and non-political spectrums. Clarity of purpose is thus key. Zimbabwe’s dialogue should be one to redefine state-society relations, and to charter a course of action towards awakening from paralysis and inertia, and to charter a course and path for onward and upward movement predicated on a shared vision for the Zimbabwean society.

This is not a matter of legal prescriptions, but fundamentally one of national consensus to dialogue, seeing the need and benefits thereof. Traditionally, national transitions in one form or another are predicated on legal change, including constitutional reform, but many such attempted transitions have failed too many a time. Law-driven and imposed transitional justice and socio-political change is okay, and must by all means be pursued, but people-driven transitions must be pursued the more. Law is such a powerful tool to achieve social justice, and often the quickest. But law is just but a single facet of a more complex puzzle. It is often said one cannot legislate good behaviour. In the same way, one cannot legislate cohesion and unity of purpose, and one cannot legislate forgiveness and closure. We also cannot legislate compassion, understanding and tolerance. We at times put too much faith in the law. While Aristotle says, “At his best, man is the noblest of all animals, separated from law and justice he is the worst”, the law of man can be discarded and disregarded but the law of the heart, no man-made law can obliterate so long as the holder of that law holds it fast.

There are at least two central imperatives for dialogue. Firstly, dialogue in the Zimbabwean context must charter a course and path for truth and reconciliation. Zimbabweans need healing, and need to find each other. It is a transition we cannot avoid, for this generation cannot burden the next with its polarisation and wounds unhealed from today’s and yesteryear’s hurt. Part of that entails venturing into an interrogation of what divides us. That unavoidably delves into accountability and responsibility issues, along with forgiveness and reconciliation. By no means is this to conflate the national dialogue process with national truth and reconciliation processes. But truth and reconciliation are central to effective and meaningful dialogue, at times even prerequisites. When Archbishop Desmond Tutu was appointed Chair of South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, he had this to say: “I hope that the work of the Commission, by opening wounds to cleanse them, will thereby stop them from festering. We cannot be facile and say bygones will be bygones, because they will not be bygones and will return to haunt us. True reconciliation is never cheap, for it is based on forgiveness, which is costly. Forgiveness in turn depends on repentance, which has to be based on an acknowledgement of what was done wrong, and therefore on disclosure of the truth. You cannot forgive what you do not know.” The link does not come out clearer than that.

Former Harvard Law School Dean Professor Martha Minow recently published a critical book on the subject law and forgiveness. The book, “When Should Law Forgive?” addresses the question of whether there is room for forgiveness in the law. Professor Minow goes on to explore a range of areas where the criminal law opens doors for forgiveness. Truth and reconciliation commissions in transitional societies, our version being the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC), seek in greater part to achieve healing from checkered pasts, and a different kind of justice beyond the punitive, in transitional societies. These kinds of institutions have already begun to explore and operationalise the notion of forgiveness as a transitional mechanism. Truth and reconciliation themselves ought to be subjects of national dialogue, unavoidably and necessarily so in the case of Zimbabwe, because of where we have been, and how we have failed to acknowledge and redress what we have done. Effectual dialogue goes beyond such formalised processes that occur within specific legal mandates. And truth-telling does have a central role in all that. Thus, for dialogue to work, the spirit of openness, truth and transparency must be brought to the fore.

Secondly, dialogue is about diagnosing our national problem and solving the national question: whitherto Zimbabwe? Only sincere dialogue can achieve the kind of transition desired, and finally charter a national vision that the country has hitherto operated without. There must be a dissection of the problem, to seek to understand the complexity of the problem, with all its components, to take pieces apart, examine them, put them back together, question assumptions, differentiate distractions from real issues, and discard the former, and interrogate solutions on how to move forward. This is because, as Strive Masiyiwa argues, you cannot solve what you cannot define. The problem must be pinpointed with some level of specificity, for concrete and pragmatic solutions to be proposed. The process in its fullness must be concrete and evidence-based.

Even the most learned – especially the most learned – know that the more one learns, the more one realises how much they do not know, as Albert Einstein counselled. Knowledge and wisdom cannot be monopolised. Rather, the collective wisdom of us all, is what will take our society forward. Zimbabwe cannot afford denying itself the collective wisdom of its peoples a day longer. In that process, some may hold and proffer ideas that seem so repugnant and outrageous. But dialogue entails listening and helping each other see differently. Instead of trashing each other’s views, listening, proffering alternative views and building consensus should prevail. Often, we miss the golden thread in each other’s messages. Yet we will see that all we are trying, bar a few, is to achieve what is best for our country. That is a critical and central rallying point that must be exploited to its logical conclusion. It has proven simply difficult to have a contest of ideas, when focus is on contest of personalities in winner-takes-all political approaches instead of the actual ideas.

Then there is the practicalities and the mechanics. How does one convene national broad-based dialogue? To start with, it is necessary to convene a national representative convention with representation of virtually every sector: students, religious establishments, political parties, think tanks, civil society, business, government, labour and self-regulating professions. Who the convenor is and should be, determines the confidence and credibility in that process. Clearly, the current Political Actors Dialogue (POLAD) arrangement has failed to garner the requisite credibility and backing, not least because of having a small closed table reserved for 2018 presidential election candidates, but also for questions on the suitability and sincerity of the convenor – a party to the elections who emerged with a questionable victory. For all reasonable and meaningful intents and purposes, POLAD is a doomed project from the start. Its thrust seems to be to confer legitimacy to a victor who stands on shaky ground, as opposed to solving the national crisis. Still on that, what Zimbabwe does not need is a repeat of 2009 – dialogue of leading political contenders that in effect did not solve the problem for the nation, but merely postponed it for another day while ushering a short-lived breather. For the kind of national dialogue mooted, anyone or any institution can take the lead in rallying support and consensus towards a national representative inception convention. However, it matters who that person or institution is, as is evidenced by the POLAD initiative. For the one who convenes the national representative convention, building widespread and cross-sectoral buy-in is a key deliverable. Representatives of the sectors in a convention must craft terms of engagement, set parameters on substantive aspects of dialogue, and design a roadmap of engagement. This encompasses building consensus on the issues of engagement, among which are conditions and pre-conditions for the entire process. This will include modalities around political contestation during the national dialogue phase – whether that should occur or not, and in either case, how.

The people should decide how they desire the dialogue to unfold. It should never be imposed, certainly not by the frontline political parties. Several options can be explored for the aftermath of the national representative inception convention. This could include ward or constituency-based engagements; sector-based engagements – broken into sub-sector or sub-regional engagements; or a mix of any of these. Further smaller and larger engagement platforms could be devised as part of the process, the goal being to be as broad-based and inclusive as possible. The parameters of the content or substance of discussion ought to be extensive, and must be set at the inception convention. The content of discussion ought to include, among other fundamental questions, whether our current politics has served us well, and interrogating the efficiency and efficacy of the current electoral system, and if anything needs to be varied. The very structure and nature of government and governance must also not be immune from interrogation.

Again, a representative forum should decide on the coordination and management mechanisms of the process: whether an existing body or a new body should be created as a comprehensive and independent infrastructural mechanism to manage the process. A cost-benefit analysis of institutionalising the management process, and a means and ends enquiry would help answer this question. This includes considerations of personnel, dealing with power dynamics, managing expectations, capturing all views and voices, independence, and so on.

There is a further point to be made: under section 2 of the Constitution, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and must at all times reign supreme insofar as positive law is concerned. However, the envisaged dialogue need not and must not be confined to thinking within the present constitutional framework. There is no law of God or man preventing people from thinking outside the Constitution. Should the solutions to be agreed upon include effecting certain fundamental changes to the Constitution, so it should be. The living Constitution is man-made, and while it must not be frequently changed, it can and must, as Thomas Jefferson wonderfully argued, be changed when progressive and constructive exigencies of the day so dictate. As Jefferson put it, “I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilised society to remain ever under the regime of their barbarous ancestors”. The need to include possible constitutional reform in the dialogue process is thus self-evident.

Timelines are difficult to delineate. There is a dual need to ensure finality and at the same time that the process is done and is done well. On a balance of probabilities, timeframes should not be permitted to hinder the process.

And of course, this costs money. The money argument will be raised by those who will contend against dialogue. The practical reality is that little is needed financially, depending on the mechanisms and modalities agreed upon and put in place for the dialogue to unfold. And if government were genuine about moving forward, government ought to fund the process through the national fiscus.

That said and done, henceforth, Zimbabweans must appreciate that dialogue is an ongoing process that should continue beyond any structured, formalised and time-bound processes. A nation simply cannot be built where there is no cohesion. Both broad-based national dialogue and continued engagement are by no means easy. It requires attitudinal change, which is often the most difficult to change in a human being. It requires willingness and understanding. It requires concessions and compromise, and it requires seeing beyond ourselves, when all that has been ingrained in us by our circumstances is individualism and inward-looking. But we need some of us to start the process, particularly those who love peace. In addition to starting with ourselves as individuals, those who love peace do need to learn to organise as effectively as those who love war, and help the latter see beyond violence and toxicity. It is also a process in need of patience; thus, it is not an issue of time over substance. The people need to talk to each other.

Yet the brutal economy has somewhat taken us back to what Thomas Hobbes described as life being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, a survival of the fittest state of affairs, where the pressures of the day are to take care of one’s survival for another day. The reality is that there is no security for anyone in the status quo. Those living on plundering public resources are living on the knife-edge, and those feeling the illusionary security of benefiting from the deepening poverty are in the minority. And being in the parasitic minority in an economically and politically edgy society is perhaps the most insecure position. It is simply in everyone’s interests for the fundamental imbalances, inequalities, otherness, intolerance, exclusion, political polarisation and economic individualism to be corrected. We do not have the luxury of indifference. We have one country, and it is possible to achieve the best for our nation and the best for our individual selves at the same time. The two are not mutually-exclusive.

Source: Musa Kika

*Dr. Musa Kika (PhD) is a Zimbabwean lawyer with specialisation in public law. He can be contacted at mkika@llm17.law.harvard.edu