Recently, the ‘Friends of Zimbabwe’ group of western donors met in London, together with representatives of all of Zimbabwe’s main political parties. The ‘Friends’ group – formerly known as the ‘Fishmongers’ after an expensive restaurant in Harare – is a grouping aimed at the discussion of international donor policy on Zimbabwe, including sanctions. While all the western donors are represented, its positions are firmly influenced by the EU and the US, and perhaps especially by the UK. London was therefore a fitting destination for the latest meeting.
The final communiqué was the usual non-committal diplomatic statement, indicating continuing commitment to Zimbabwe, and recording the actually substantial aid flows that are being offered. But the departure for this meeting was the presence of senior ZANU-PF officials whose travel bans had been removed following the successful Constitutional referendum.
Justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa, was among the delegation, and he got a roasting on BBC’s Hard Talk, as he tried to defend the government position on a variety of policies. However, there were also other more civil exchanges, including one at Chatham House when senior officials from all parties, commented on the current situation with a clear tone of compromise and conciliation.
The political context in Zimbabwe remains highly uncertain, but there are unexpected shifts – partly as a result of the relative success of the ‘unity’ government, and partly as a result of failures in the opposition, both to offer a convincing alternative and to develop a clear set of alliances.
Simukai Tinhu offered a useful overview in a recent African Arguments piece. Phillan Zamchiya in a very detailed Crisis in Zimbabwe report reckons ZANU-PF is gearing up to win the election by stealth, stealing votes and fixing the results through a number of tactics. These are well worn tricks of course, but there may be wider political shifts underway too. However, simply blaming a poor result for the MDC on foul play may not be enough. For this reason many see another coalition as an inevitable result, with the big questions being who will occupy the presidency and what the balance of power will be in parliament.
Finance Minister Tendai Biti was also in London recently on his way back from negotiations with the IMF in Washington, and again spoke at Chatham House. Analysis by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum was revealing:
“Judging by the Minister´s tone and the way he addressed some of the key issues, it is our opinion that the gap between ZANU PF and the MDC(T) on key issues appears to be narrowing. Similarly, the Minister was quite diplomatic in trying to demystify the myth that the MDC and pro-democracy civil society organisations are synonymous and are working together towards the so-called regime change agenda. He obviously did not want to alienate pro-democracy civil society organisations which traditionally helped the MDC in its formative years.
However by expanding the definition of civil society organisations beyond the usual narrow definition and stating that there is an operational civil society in Zimbabwe, the Minister sought to, in our view; keep a healthy distance between the MDC as a political party and other pro-democracy groups. This, it appears, was his counterpoint, against the ZANU PF argument that all pro-democracy forces are bent on a western-sponsored regime change agenda.
The view that points to a political convergence is supported by the plea the Minister had made to the USA and the IMF that Zimbabwe ought to be treated equally according to the same measure that has been used on countries with troubled pasts such as Burma. By saying this, he echoed his strong views for the lifting of sanctions by the European Union in July 2013.
On the issue of indigenisation, the Minister again struck a note which doesn´t quite resonate with some of the sentiments from the Western countries.
It would appear that behind closed doors, both the MDC and moderate ZANU PF Ministers agree on key issues than they disagree in public.
That´s how politics work. The current widely held view that President Mugabe hasn´t softened on his legacy ignores anecdotal evidence that indicate that lately he has been softening his clenched fist, so to speak. An example is his calls for peace, which has widely been dismissed by most people as rhetoric which doesn´t match what is happening on the ground. However anecdotal evidence from various sources including Zimbabwean equivalent of Wikileaks appear to suggest that the President´s attempts to soften are negated by some within his party who fear what might happen if ZANU PF softens on its legacy inspired by its liberation war credentials.
Although the Minister spoke about the current issues of concern, he was very measured in his approach. He exhibited every sign of a principled man, who, despite having undergone the vagaries of his difficult job and the incarceration he underwent in 2008, has matured, forgiven his persecutors and might even have undergone a paradigm shift. This shift, which is also reflected in the entire MDC, has seen it move from its widely perceived Eurocentric roots to the moderate pan-African approach. It also appears that there are some within ZANU PF who have softened on their legacy by moving to the centre ground although there are still some still on the far right. Those on the far right are in our view, the ones the Minister referred to when he said there are Ministers within the government who make irrational political statements that affect the economy”.
In light of other pieces of evidence we have gathered, particularly the likelihood that the US is to announce policy shift on Zimbabwe, there is every indication of a national and political consensus on key issues, which might see an unexpected political landscape after the elections.”
The consensus may be surprising to some who have been viewing Zimbabwe’s tortured process of transition from afar. There may be much more consensus on thorny issues of land reform, national ownership of key businesses and the role of civil society than is commonly understood.
Clearly the consensus is not universal and the more progressive elements across all the parties may be out-manoeuvred by those with other agendas, whether the military elite, fearing post-election reprisals, or white capital, seeking a reassertion of power. As Biti, a clear presidential contender in the (maybe not so far off) future, tentatively repositions the MDC, it may not just be the traditional western ‘friends’ of Zimbabwe, but others including China, Brazil and South Africa, who become the important brokers into the future.