Mbeki’s difficult Zim mission – Part I


South Africa’s former President Thabo Mbeki was recently in Zimbabwe as part of efforts to facilitate a political dialogue in Harare.  He separately met the two key players in Zimbabwe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa representing the ruling Zimbabwe African National Patriotic Front (Zanu PF) and the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance, Nelson Chamisa. Mbeki also met members of Political Actors Dialogue (Polad), which is a fringe formation of insignificant actors including the academic Prof. Lovemore Madhuku, Thokozani Khupe and Obert Gutu.  Mbeki’s overtures to Polad was however seen as a mockery to the whole dialogue process.

Polad is seen as Mnangagwa’s progeny comprising of pliant spoilers serving his interests to smear Chamisa, whose political star continues to rise as evidenced by his show at the 2018 harmonised elections where he polled 44% of the vote, frighteningly close to Mnangagwa’s 50.8% in the presidential results, which the MDC Alliance heavily disputes!

The fact that Mbeki however met Nelson Chamisa on individual terms was a masterstroke given that President Mnangagwa has made it clear that Chamisa has to join the Polad forum, serving as the vehicle for dialogue, without any clear agenda. Mbeki’s approach to go for the jugular by recognising Chamisa individually depicts the youthful leader’s role in the politics of a broken and polarised nation.

There is hope that Mbeki’s “talks” will at least see Mnangagwa and Chamisa sitting on the same table in what should set the tone for a dialogue. Understandably, some sections of the media claimed that the talks would ultimately lead to another Government of National Unity (GNU) in ways reminiscent of the first coalition (between 2009-2013) involving Robert Mugabe as President, Morgan Tsvangirai as Prime Minister, Prof Arthur Mutambara and Dr Thokozani Khupe as Deputy Prime Ministers.

Mbeki’s visit is important because it gives hope to a nation confronted by a myriad of challenges which include an energy crisis, restive workforce, health sector crisis, currency challenges and a deterioration of the rule of law.  Mbeki’s new efforts are important because they constitute a continuum of efforts towards dialogue which Zimbabwe has shown at epochal moments in its history. For instance, the Lancaster House Agreement (1979) was a historic peace building initiative which set the tone for a “New Zimbabwe”. Robert Mugabe’s racial conciliation policy at independence, even despite the egregious past of white-sponsored violence, racism and plunder, again followed the template of dialogue. 

Furthermore, the Unity Accord between Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, which has reached its 32nd anniversary in 2019 and is being commemorated every 22nd of December, is another typical example of efforts to dialogue, following the disturbances which Zimbabwe experienced in the 80’s in various parts of Matabeleland provinces. All nations have a ubiquitous demonstration of dialogue suiting local political conditions.

Mbeki’s latest round of talks shall however be a difficult mission for several reasons.  Chiefly, the MDC shares strong reservations for Mbeki who they perceive as partial to the ruling Zanu PF’s hegemonic interests. Other impediments include the growing militarisation of politics, the continued electoral disputes, internal ructions with the ruling party, absence of a common national vision, the slow reform process and the MDC’s experiences during the GNU. 

In this article I will explain Mbeki’s likely difficulties based on the political experiences which the country went through from 1980 to 2017, especially after Zimbabwe’s military coup d’état attempt on Robert Mugabe in November 2017.

There is a growing crisis of values in Zimbabwe. Zanu PF has been ruling for nearly forty years now, while the MDC has been the main opposition for twenty years. Zanu PF considers itself as the defining actor of Zimbabwe’s past and future. Characteristically, this hard-line stance by Zanu PF has defined any dialogue as a last resort, especially to the MDC Alliance which Robert Mugabe considered as puppets of the West! This explains why figures such as the maverick exiled former Minister of Higher Education and Information, Professor Jonathan Moyo, once asserted that the party cannot “reform itself out of power”, a view which has been reasserted by Zanu PF’s apparatchiks such as its national Commissar, Victor Matemadanda.

Secondly, the MDC Alliance sees Zanu PF as a dishonest and authoritarian party, whose marks have remained the same. While the late Morgan Tsvangirai disputed every election result since 2000, it was however the 2008 election which was greatly considered as an annihilation of the people’s “popular vote”. The March 2008 general election results took more than six weeks to be released, with official results indicating that Tsvangirai had gotten some 48% of vote against Mugabe’s 43%. Despite the overwhelming belief that Mugabe had lost, the official results indicated that Tsvangirai had failed to muster the required 50%+1 of the vote, which required a runoff election on June 27, characterised by intimidation and violence leading Tsvangirai to pull out from the race! Mugabe polled 85% of the vote and was hastily inaugurated as president in ways reminiscent of Napoleon Bonaparte’s act of crowning himself!

Negotiations for a political dialogue had an existing framework even before the disputed 2008 election. On 11 March 2007, anti-Mugabe coalition leaders under the Save Zimbabwe campaign were beaten by the police. SADC convened an urgent special summit in Tanzania on 27 March 2007, for purposes of addressing the political problems affecting Zimbabwe. This summit mandated South Africa to dialogue amongst the key political actors, ZANU PF and MDC. With the 2008 election disputes, SADC already had a platform for addressing the Zimbabwean question in the context of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) which had a number of “sticking points” before the inception of the GNU.  Top among the outstanding issues were calls for security sector reform, electoral and media reform among other areas. The MDC Alliance believes that every election was marred by rigging, thereby making any talks of dialogue infantile! Another disparity is the fact that Mbeki comes at the invitation of president Emmerson Mnangagwa, something which the MDC might hold in suspicion!

Further, the opposition party generally sees Zanu PF as an intransigent political actor. Zimbabwe made significant strides between 2009-2011, which were however interrupted by Zanu PF’s default political mode which cost Zimbabwe its economy during the final two years of the GNU! Zanu PF’s “resounding victory” again led to a new legitimacy crisis and a political and social-economic abyss manifesting itself for the umpteenth time!

Between 2014-2017, the party further immersed itself in internecine factional battles which saw the ouster of Vice President Joice Mujuru and her “cabal” in 2014 and later on Emmerson Mnangagwa who was fired in November 2017, before tanks rolled out into the streets in a process which authored Mugabe’s demise. Nelson Chamisa in particular sees all these events as evidence of the party’s undying political wars having a negative impact on the state’s coherence!

Given the military dabbling in politics as evidenced in 2008 and other incidences before and even its brazen hand in Mugabe’s removal, there is now wide belief that they are the “stockholders” of Zimbabwe’s political system. While Mbeki has been dialoguing with political actors and civic leaders, there remains a shrouded powerbase of the military. Mbeki’s dialogue efforts are made even more difficult by the security sector’s continued involvement in state affairs, even after November 2017. The military’s dominance flies in the face of the MDC’s vaunted “democratic tradition” which pins its hopes on an ever-desired “free and fair election.”

Finally, Mbeki’s difficult task ahead is compounded by the change of political personalities—from Robert Mugabe to Emmerson Mnangagwa and Morgan Tsvangirai to Nelson Chamisa. While both Mnangagwa and Chamisa played key roles in the negotiation process and also became cabinet ministers during the GNU, both however have contrasting political values.  By virtue of being the president, Mnangagwa is at the summit of his political career. Robert Mugabe stayed on for too long and hence Mnangagwa, his protégé, now wants to make amends for the “time lost”. Meanwhile, young charismatic Chamisa is at the cusp of his political career, having much verve to assume the reins of state power, as part of a generational succession efforts occurring across Africa and Europe!

For now, the room for compromise remains limited and elusive, while the country burns. Despite the complexities, there is some hope that the talks will usher in a better 2020. How Mbeki navigates himself will depend on his astuteness and political buy-in especially from the MDC Alliance perspective.

•             Tafirenyika Laxton Dube is a researcher on Zimbabwean politics. Feedback email:


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