I first visited Zimbabwe a few weeks after independence in 1980. I lived there with my family in the early 1990s. I often visited when I lived in Botswana a decade later. My son Lasse was born at Avenue’s Clinic in Harare. I have numerous friends living in Zimbabwe as well as outside. If the political situation was different, I would not hesitate to return to as often as possible, and I would love to live in Zimbabwe again.

I was therefore open to suggestions on how to support multi-party dialogue in Zimbabwe, when I started working for the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy. The Board approved a proposal, and the work started. After four years of difficult, turbulent and frustrating efforts, the project threatened to fall apart.

This article is called A LINE IN THE SAND? and is from the book “Engaging with democracy globally”, published in December 2016 when I retired from the DIPD institute. The full book can be downloaded here: Engaging – 2016 – final


a personal approach

Minister Didymus Mutasa received us in his office in the ruling ZANU-PF party headquarter building in Harare, not in his ministerial office. Correctly so, because the matter to be discussed this morning was not about the policies of the three-party coalition government, but about the relationship among the three parties. They had been forced into a governing coalition by the international community, but they were not on friendly terms.

The year is 2012. DIPD had joined hands with the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) to support the local Zimbabwe Institute (ZI) to manage a multi-party dialogue project. Through this, we hoped the 2013 elections would be more peaceful than had been the case with the previous election in 2008.

We greeted each other, and I could see in Mutasa’s eyes that he did not remember me. Understandably so! It had been almost twenty years since we met in the town of Nyanga in the mountainous and picturesque Eastern Highlands. We had been there to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the Zuwa Weavers Co-Operative.

The Minister was an old-timer in the party. He had been part of the liberation struggle and served as the first Speaker of the first parliament elected after Independence on 17 April 1980 – a few weeks before I visited Zimbabwe for the first time. Later he held several ministerial posts. Now he was both a minister and the head of the ruling party’s organization. By definition, he was therefore close to President Robert Mugabe.

After formal introductions, Minister Mutasa gave the visitors from Europe and their local partner a vivid, animated and frank lecture about his views of the role of Europe and ‘white people’ in the history of Zimbabwe. Not good! Had it not been for ‘our’ efforts to pursue a neo-colonial and subversive policy, his country would have a bright future.

We listened politely. We understood that the minister was not talking about us as individuals.

“I consider myself to be partly Zimbabwean,” I started my response, deciding to take a personal approach. “I was part of the Danish solidarity community supporting the liberation struggle; I worked and lived here for several years, supporting the development of your country; my son was born in Harare, at Avenues Clinic.”

“Very good,” the minister said and nodded.

“The minister would not remember of course, but we actually worked together on some occasions in the past,” I continued, hoping to break the ice.

“Really…?” he said and looked at me, a smile lurking in the corner of his eyes.

Then I told him about the celebration of the anniversary of the weavers’ co-operative in Nyanga, as well as other examples of practical support offered by Danish development workers.

Of course, this did not change the basic political economy of Zimbabwe. The ruling party was fundamentally reluctant to accept the idea that multi-party dialogue was useful and necessary. It sees itself as the only legitimate party and the owner of the liberation that resulted from the independence struggle.

Having a personal relationship with a key political actor was not a precondition for our work. On the other hand, at times it can come in handy, when you have to deal with the many obstacles that are inherent parts of the journey towards dialogue.

the volcano is erupting

Parliamentary elections in 2013 resulted in a resounding victory for ZANU-PF. This was partly the result of the party being able to control the electoral system and process. Partly, it was the result of the opposition performing badly.

ZANU-PF formed a majority government. Once again, all the political power to run the country as he wished was now in the hands of Robert Mugabe and his party. The opposition was weak.

What ended up defining the next phase was not only the electoral victory, but also the vicious battle among those in the ruling party, who one day wanted to be the successor to Robert Mugabe.

The first eruption from the ZANU-PF volcano came before the December 2014 congress. After a campaign orchestrated by people close to Mugabe, Vice-President Joyce Mujuru was ousted from the party.

With her departure, several Mujuru supporters also had to leave voluntarily, or they would be asked to leave. Among them was our contact in the party, Minister Didymus Mutasa. He did not mince his words of criticism towards his old comrades when he left the party.

The situation made it clearer than ever how fragile this type of work can be in a context like that of Zimbabwe. How much you need to invest without any guarantee that anything will come of it. How true it is that in our line of business, our funding is ‘risk-willing capital’.

Does that mean we should not engage in situations and contexts as difficult, sensitive, unpredictable, volatile and fragile as what Zimbabwe presents?

I have no clear answer!

I have often argued that we should be part of the toughest stages of the race in order to play a key role when things calm down.

I have also argued that this should be based on sound analysis and due diligence. Yes, we should take risks, but they should be calculated.

The problem is that we never have the full truth and all the nuances. This makes it difficult if not outright impossible to know exactly when you are in the process of crossing the (invisible) line in the sand.

planning for a seminar

During the course of 2015, cutthroat competition within ZANU-PF threatened to put an end to our efforts to support multi-party dialogue. In fact, something similar to what was taking place in the ruling party also took place in the opposition parties. The perverse logic of the day-to-day politics required full attention to internal and personal matters. The politics of the social and economic survival of the country was parked on the sidelines, just like the population.

At the meeting in March 2016, the DIPD Board approved a recommendation of postponing the approval of a new project document. More discussions were necessary among the three parties. More clarity on the real commitment from all the parties was required. This was necessary to ensure a strong foundation for ZI, NIMD and DIPD to engage in a very tricky and sensitive operation.

Preparations for the next mission to Harare started right after the board meeting. There was intense communication between ZI, NIMD and DIPD. There was a clear agreement that a meeting between the three Secretary Generals should take place as soon as possible, to lend legitimacy to the process. NIMD and DIPD agreed that a two-day seminar, outside the capital city, with staff from all three parties, was necessary for a solid long-term activity plan to be developed.

It is rare that things take place as planned in the present political environment of Zimbabwe; this has been our working condition for several years, so we were not naïve. Based on signs and commitments, the two-day seminar was planned to take place in Eastern Highlands. Good facilitators were hired. Before going to the mountains, the Secretary Generals would meet.

While I was flying into Harare from Johannesburg, people from the parties were set to meet in the office of the minister now responsible for party affairs in ZANU-PF. The Secretary Generals of the two opposition parties and our friends from ZI waited for more than an hour. Finally, a representative of the minister informed the delegation that things had to be postponed!

I do not know what took place between the delegations arriving at the office and the message of postponement being communicated. My own guess is that the minister came under pressure from groupings in the party that are not inclined to entertain any idea of a genuine dialogue with the opposition.

getting ready for the kill

At the end of the day, it was not clear if postponement indeed was meant to signal what the word is supposed to mean, or just a polite way of stating that ZANU-PF is no longer on board to continue with multi-party dialogue.

Independent media and commentators argued that the preparations for positioning the ruling party to beat the opposition convincingly in the 2018 election had already started. The strategy would be implemented with ruthless force as seen in the past.

This was necessary with an economy in a deadly downward spiral. Events included limits on cash withdrawals and the Zimbabwean Central Bank’s effort to introduce bonds, in order to deal with the currency shortage. All of this taking place only seven years after the Zimbabwean dollar was suspended after spiraling to a 500 billion percent inflation. The opposition could exploit the increasing dissatisfaction of ordinary Zimbabweans, and the ruling party would not allow this to happen.

Efforts to institutionalize or formalize some form of dialogue among the three parties were a necessary casualty of such a strategy. Why dialogue, when we get ready for the kill?

In a party deeply divided, there would also be those who favored the dialogue. In my February 2016 report to the Board, I had stated that the three leaders we worked with had confirmed their commitment to a continuation of the dialogue process. While the ZANU-PF representative might use different wording than those from the two opposition parties, I still believed that the personal position of the ruling party representative was positive.

However, it was impossible to say if there was an official position at all. This would after all require the direct approval of the President, and while ZI, NIMD and DIPD naturally felt that this particular issue should be at the top of the list of priorities, it was most likely not a top priority for the competing would-be leaders of the ruling party.

is dialogue possible?

The question of a line in the sand remained elusive. Were we standing on the line now? Had we already stepped over it? Could we reposition?

In a partnership like this, there were many stakeholders. At the end of the day, we had to make our own decision, listening to the views of our partners, NIMD as well as ZI. The opposition parties also had a legitimate right to be heard.

Did they operate with their own line in the sand?

The Movement for Democratic Change under the leadership of Morgan Tsvangirai (MDC-T) remains the biggest opposition party. The party has undoubtedly lost some popularity after taking part in the unity government. It has also lost its unique place as the one uniting voice of the opposition, after several key leaders have broken out of the party and formed their own. These breakaways have not always happened because of substantive policy differences, but because of clashes between personalities, and disagreements about how to position the opposition towards the ruling party.

The much smaller breakaway MDC party is led by Welshman Ncube, a gifted intellectual and an astute analyst of the politics of the country. Unfortunately, the party has suffered from further fragmentation and resignations.

These are the two parties in addition to the ruling ZANU-PF that we have worked with since 2012. In addition, there are now parties not represented in parliament that could end up playing a role after the 2018 elections. This would most likely in particular be the case of the party founded by former Vice-President Joyce Mujuru.

Following the postponement decision, we met with representatives from the two parties and tried to understand how they assessed the situation.

They pointed to the succession politics in ZANU-PF as the major obstacle. This has resulted in power dynamics shifting on a daily basis, and with it, perceptions and suspicions have taken center stage. Because it is enmeshed in the succession conundrum, the power balance within the party has been shifting, and we have seen a constant change of hands in respect of the personnel dealing with the multi-party dialogue programme.

It was clearly their understanding that the various factions in the ruling party, competing to fill the power vacuum imminent after the departure of Mugabe, now viewed each other with suspicion.

Despite these challenges, they continued to believe that inter-party dialogue could be key to solving Zimbabwe’s problems. Not out of naivety, but because they had seen it happen in the past. It was inter-party dialogue that led to the Global Political Agreement, which again led to the establishment of the Government of National Unity in 2008.

Consequently, the opposition parties wanted to move forward. They probably also saw numerous lines in the sand, but they seemed to believe that certain things could still be done to prepare the way for dialogue.

why would zanu-pf participate?

Zimbabwe Institute has been the local implementer. ZI staff have had to deliver progress under extremely difficult conditions. Today, there is no other institution in Zimbabwe that can deliver what ZI is potentially able to deliver.

Did ZI operate with a line in the sand?

Maybe they did not know the exact position of the line, and if they did, they did not tell me. As I understood the analysis, their point of departure seemed clear, simple and logical.

ZANU-PF today has a two-thirds majority in parliament. Since 2013, the party has increased its representation in parliament to over 80%, due to opposition infighting and boycott of all by-elections. Because of the overwhelming political control, and the fragmentation of the opposition, the party is in a position to do whatever it feels like, and the politicians therefore currently behave with an attitude of both arrogance and complacency.

Within the current complex political narrative, it is extremely difficult to clearly understand the attitude and strategic position of ZANU-PF regarding dialogue. ZI would point to past experiences that indicate that:

The party has participated from time to time, and often it has been represented by high profile politicians. This was the case in 2015, when a delegation with representatives from all parties visited Ghana, to learn from a political system, where the two large parties have alternated to run the country. In the last two elections, the winner has received only a little more than 50 % of the votes cast.

Given the centralization of power in the party, none of the programmes would have taken place without the express knowledge and approval of the President. This indicates that there are some forces inside the party that believe in the need for a dialogue, not necessarily because they love it, but because it would benefit the country.

The ruling party has not at any point formally withdrawn from the dialogue. They have given excuses and frustrated the process. Formally, it has never withdrawn.

For ZI therefore, the challenge was how to manage risks in such a way that programmes take place without compromising the values and principles of the project. Not an easy thing to do.

post scriptum

During the summer of 2016, Zimbabwe entered a new phase, with reminiscences of the past, but also with new dimensions.

Among the old dimensions were those of the economy, plunging further into the abyss, and with no improvements in sight. Less than a quarter of the work force enjoys a formal job. The majority of people struggle their way through the informal sector. If they live in the rural areas, they work hard to eke out a living on the edge of subsistence. Without remittances from abroad, most families would suffer even more.

How long will the poor remain silent?

How long will public servants accept that their salaries are not paid at all, or paid with great delay?

New political dimensions and movements have sprung up in recent years and months, not initiated or directed by the opposition parties, but by citizens and civil society. They have proven that it is possible to mobilize people, and that some are willing to defy the repressive habits of the regime and enjoy their constitutional rights to march peacefully through the streets.

All of this coincided with the message in August 2016 that the ruling party had given a green light for the multi-party dialogue. A formal letter came from the minister.

The seminar Eastern Highlands finally took place. The framework for a new three-year dialogue programme was discussed. The European Union in Harare was ready to fund part of such a programme.

In October 2016, I travelled to Harare again. Enjoying the purple flowers of the fabulous jacaranda trees lining the streets, I was trying to locate the line in the sand one last time. I needed to do this to advise my board about what to do.

I knew what my heart told me to do.

Before I landed in Copenhagen, I would need to ask my head if this would work?