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A framework for dialogue


Political polarisation in Zimbabwe stands at unsustainable levels. As anywhere else we see it, political polarisation is toxic and chocking. 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 who proffers them. 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” (will continue to rule) and the former says we will throw “jecha” (be spoilers) 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 only Zimbabweans understand 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 seem 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 outlook, 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.

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.

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.

lMusa Kika (PhD) is a Zimbabwean lawyer with specialisation in public law. He can be contacted at

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