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A dialogue of chameleons?

My view is that politicians are like chameleons: they change their skin colour depending on the environment that they want to adapt to. This is the case today as it was yesterday, with Zimbabwean politicians from all political formations. Suddenly Zanu-PF and the MDC are bed-fellows; they can together mislead the media, agree to media blackout and even exclude everyone else except themselves from the talks.

With a stroke of a pen; Mugabe, Tsvangirai and Mutambara seem to have turned the tables for citizens and civil society. Whereas yesterday the citizens could have claimed to have been in the trenches with politicians, they can not say the same today. A line has been drawn between citizens and politicians. The current mediation process has shown politicians to be what they are: selfish seducers who have been riding on people’s suffering to get to the negotiating table. Now that they are at the negotiating table; they have thrown away their allies in the struggle: the people. This is what political chameleons and seducers are: they only need friends only when it is strategic for them; once the strategic goal has been attained, they discard of their friends. This is the mood regarding the current negotiations to resolve Zimbabwe’s crisis. There is a sense that politicians especially those from the MDC have used civil society and other formations to get to the negotiating table; now that they are about to share political positions; it is time to get rid of civil society and side with their type: Zanu-PF.

I am not against the current talks on Zimbabwe. I am not happy with them either. I am disappointed at their nature, which seems to me is not designed to find a lasting and sustainable solution to the crisis; but the sharing of positions. Indeed, if media reports are true, the only sticking points are around who becomes what in the new government? It would appear that there is agreement already on substantive issues such as the land-reform programme, the new Constitution and national healing, among others. How is that possible in a short space of time? If this is about positions, doomed we are. This is why I am arguing that politicians are dangerous people to be left alone to make such crucial decisions that will either make or break Zimbabwe. Citizens and their formations must be accorded a platform to monitor these developments and make meaningful input to the negotiations. Can chameleons make lasting, binding and sustainable decisions? This is a topic for another opinion piece, save to say; me doesn’t think so.

I have not written on Zimbabwe in a few weeks because like most people I have been trying to comprehend fully what the current situation holds for us. The past month or so has been trying in terms of putting into perspective the new developments in Zimbabwe. I decided to revisit all my writings on Zimbabwe; both academic and opinion pieces. I realised that since 2001, I have been a strong advocate for a dialogue between political formations. In one of my earlier pieces I wrote that the only solution to Zimbabwe’s problems is for Zimbabweans to find common ground and work towards resolving their differences and celebrate their diversity. Naturally, therefore, I should be happy that there is a dialogue taking place now and the two main protagonists are talking. I wondered why I had by now not written a dozen articles celebrating that finally, there is a breakthrough in the Zimbabwean crisis. I guess I was torn between not tampering with the process because we desperately need a solution and the need to raise problematic areas about the process, just in case we make a mistake we cannot reverse. I have been having these fights till I was invited to attend a continental civil-society meeting on transitional governments and processes in Zambia on August 7. It was at this moment that I realised I could use the meeting to raise some of the concerns I have with the mediation process.

Firstly, the current negotiations leave a lot to be desired. Had they been inclusive, we would perhaps be talking a different language. Maybe I would not be disillusioned by the twist in the events. I am sure that when I wrote in early 2000 about the need for a dialogue; I did not mean the current secretive and exclusive power-sharing deal. Neither did Zimbabweans want six elites to decide their fate when they called for political maturity among leaders. We both imagined a broader and inclusive process; one that would recognise that Zimbabwe is bigger than Mugabe, Tsvangirai and Mutambara. We imagined a process that would include all political formations, including the smallest parties. Makoni would in my view be part of the process and so are tiny parties in the country that have, since 2000, been taking part in the elections.

The current process seems to be reducing everyone to Zanu-PF and the MDC. This is problematic and needs to be addressed. This is supposed to be a Zimbabwean process and not a Zanu-PF or MDC process. In a way, Zanu-PF and the MDC have got us where we are today and it is naïve to think that they will solve the crisis of Zimbabwe alone. It is already clear that what we are looking for is not what they are negotiating. They are interested in the political positions and not the substantive issues that will normalise the country and resuscitate the ailing economy. Let’s not be fooled by the current format that the negotiations have taken — it will not lead to a resolution of the crisis in Zimbabwe. Let us broaden the process to include other stakeholders and citizens.

I have serious concerns with the current structure of the negotiating team: it is an elitist pact. I get worried when I read in the papers that “they demanded luxurious rooms and expensive whisky”. I want to believe that this was the media being mischievous. However, if it is true, it goes to show their real interest in the crisis. This is not my focus here though. I am concerned that the current negotiations amount to what I call the highest level of disregard for citizens’ rights to decide their destiny. It was even embarrassing to hear negotiators, including the office of the mediator, state publicly that the talks would be conducted in a secret venue. Sadly enough, they were not embarrassed themselves. This is a political scandal. Why the secrecy, one might ask? The crisis was not a secret matter, so why should the process to resolve it be a preserve of a few and a secret matter? Citizens of Zimbabwe and the world in general have to wait for a group of five men and one woman to come up with a solution for a country whose population is more than 12-million. Worse still, we have to keep guessing about the developments, given the media blackout. Are we so desperate that we have settled for lower standards?

The trip to Zambia on Thursday was meant to be a catalyst for me to put these concerns into perspective. I have been in the region for at least a month now, meeting different stakeholders, attending conferences and just having my ear to the ground. Although I have been fortunate enough to have been close to people who have access to the events, like everyone else who at one moment was either close to the MDC folks or Zanu-PF will attest; there is a wide gap that exists between us and them. They (Zanu-PF and MDC) have suddenly fallen in love and both are paranoid of their citizens. Suddenly, there is growing suspicion even within the MDC ranks that everyone else is an enemy to the process. Worse still, there is an undercurrent that if one seeks to be part of the process, then one is positioning oneself for a position in the new government. This has resulted in many experts and activists watching events from a distance, just in case they say something which might earn them the description of wanting jobs in the new administration. I have been amazed by the level of disempowerment that now exists among citizens and their formations following this process. Many feel that their fate is now in the hands of the six negotiators. Even the strongest activists I have known in the history of Zimbabwe are afraid that if they make an input into the process, two things are likely to happen. One, they are likely to be accused of job hunting, if what they say is constructive and useful for the negotiators. The second thing likely to happen is that if what they say is critical of the process, they are likely to be accused of interfering with the process. The sudden change of colours of erstwhile “political friends” is an interesting development to watch. Equally so is the resultant romance between Zanu-PF and MDC.

The current feeling among political actors and civil society was clearly illustrated at the Zambian airport on August 7 2008. Together with a group of academics, activists, and civil society formations, I travelled to Zambia for a continental civil society meeting on transitional processes. This meeting was meant to be a peer learning and sharing platform for civil-society groups from across the continent on roles that civil society ought to play during transitional periods. Because it was such an important meeting, attracting experts and activists from countries such as Sierra Leone, Kenya, Cameroon, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, just to name a few, I made a decision that I would write a reflective piece based on the deliberations and resolutions of the meeting. For me, the meeting provided an opportunity for civil-society groups to help their Zimbabwean colleagues on how best to contribute to the ongoing talks. Kenya has been through it, so has South Africa and Sierra Leone.

Sadly I can not write about the resolutions of that meeting. It never was. But what I can tell you is that there is a certain paranoia that is gripping states when they think of civil society. We have reached a phase in which if you are a member of civil society, you are viewed by the state as an enemy or part of the opposition’s agenda. Worse still is the fact that even the very opposition that civil society is accused of helping has the tendency to view or even clamp down on civil society once it begins to “smell power”. This is certainly the case in most countries. Governing parties that came from civil society or individual leaders that came into power through civil-society struggles have been at the forefront of harassing and arresting civil-society groups. In Zimbabwe, the MDC is beginning to show similar signs. This must be a lesson for civil-society groups never to trust politicians. As one Malawian poet put it, politicians are like chameleons; they change their colour to suit the environment. This is the season of chameleons in Zimbabwe. Politicians are changing their colours and some civil-society groups are also doing the same.

Back to the airport: We got there and authorities turned us back to our respective countries. ‘There is an instruction from the top that we should not allow delegates attending the civil-society meeting to go through’, said the immigration officer.

“But why?” we enquired.

‘The meeting was not cleared. We don’t know what is happening, we are just implementing what we were told”, was the response.

This incident drove home many points for me. The first is that increasingly we are witnessing a conscious decision by some states to obliterate civil society and close whatever space is available to the sector. This is done through legislation, decrees and just ad-hoc and paranoiac repressions like the one described above. Refusing groups to meet and discuss transitions in Africa is not just bizarre but it goes to show the weaknesses and fears of our governments. I am certain that this meeting was not planning a coup, and even if it did, civil society does not have the capacity to stage a coup.

The recent coup in Mauritania was not staged by civil society; it was the military junta. This was an indication for me that civil society has to continually struggle to create its own space in matters that affect citizens. It was no surprise that this meeting was banned, especially if one took into consideration the exclusive nature of the negotiations in the Zimbabwe crisis. There is no doubt that Zimbabwe would have dominated the discussions. Could it be that this meeting would have been interpreted as interfering with the mediation process as some pundits have already begun stating?

This is also a warning to Zambian civil society that the struggle for the contestation and democratisation of the public space is still far from being won. As Zambian groups fight the NGO Bill, that if passed would control their activities, this event ought to be a pointer of things to come.

A lighter moment brought some laughter when one of the civil-society delegates asked the immigration officer; “Is Mugabe now the president of Zambia? Why is Zambia so scared to even allow civil society to hold a meeting on Zimbabwe?” Some people wondered whether Mwanawasa would also have succumbed and closed down the meeting had he been around?

The second point that this incident pointed out were the ruptures that exist, particularly among Zimbabwean civil-society groups. While we were all waiting to be turned back, some groups from Zimbabwe arrived and we notified them of the situation. While the rest of us had taken a principled decision to let the Zambian authorities know that we were attending a civil-society meeting at the Chrisma Hotel, some of these groups decided to declare otherwise. They were let through, leaving behind colleagues from other countries. So much for solidarity! This showed how easy it is to divide a struggle. The meeting was not going to take place because the venue was already full of government agents, our sources said, so what was the point of going through? The real point about civil-society struggles is not piecemeal achievements, hence going through to the venue clandestinely is not itself the end. The methodology is as good as the conclusion. If civil-society groups, political actors included, could realise that how they get to a decision is as important as the decision itself, we would not be where we are today.

The third point that the meeting consolidated is the fact that there is a real need within civil society to trust local actors and, where possible, work through them. If this meeting was arranged in Zimbabwe by a local group, my sense is that it would have taken place and would have had some legitimacy.

The drama around the dialogue of chameleons has not ended. The SADC summit is coming up next week. There is likely to be lots of surprises, but be that as it may, rest assured that the current talks are not sustainable unless they are broadened to include all stakeholders to mitigate the changing nature of chameleons.


  • Bhekinkosi Moyo is trained in political science and currently shuttles between Southern Africa and West Africa. He works for TrustAfrica-a Pan African oriented foundation that works to secure the conditions for democratic governance and equitable development. In 2007, he edited a collection of chapters: Africa in Global Power Play. He has just completed editing an 18 country book on DisEnabling the Public Sphere: Civil Society Regulation in Africa.