guest column Willard Chinhara
Polad (an acronym for Political Actors Dialogue) is a voluntary platform for national dialogue launched by President Emmerson Mnangagwa just a few days after the Ides of May 2019.
Polad was flamboyantly launched at the Harare International Conference Centre (HICC) on Friday, May 17, 2019. The “political actors” are mainly political parties and candidates who participated in the July 30, 2018 harmonised elections, wherein the biometric voter register (BVR) was used for the first time in Zimbabwe. In this Political Actors Dialogue, it may be presumed that the stage is not set for a drama where the phrase “political actors” denotes dramatis personae.
Polad, which is still in its embryonic stage, has not yet suffered a still-birth, but has casualties as some actors have withdrawn their participation. This scenario is further aggravated by the fact that the MDC Alliance, a major contender in the 2018 elections and a befitting protagonist in the dialogue, shunned participation right from the onset.
Amidst a barrage of criticism from some Polad subscribers and other onlookers, the MDC held its elective congress in the Midlands from May 24 to May 26, 2019. At this congress, the pursuit of dialogue was forestalled by calls for mass mobilisation to embark on civil disobedience or mass action as a valid tool for political change.
In recognition of national dialogue as an essential platform for peaceful transformation and democratic transition in a conflict-ridden country, it is prudent to submit that confrontation is never the best option, but it may be an alternative of last resort when dialogue proves fruitless. In these circumstances and for several other reasons, it is logical to argue that Polad needs gravitas in order to bear a reasonable semblance of national significance, political validity and meaningfulness.
The concept of gravitas
Gravitas is a word that comes to us straight from the Latin language. In colloquial parlance, the word gravitas simply means seriousness. However, according to Wikipedia, “it is one of the Roman virtues, along with pietas, severitas, gravity and self-control of disciplina, dignitas, and virtus, which were particularly appreciated in leaders… Gravitas may be translated variously as weight, seriousness, dignity, and importance and connotes a certain substance or depth of personality.
It also conveys a sense of responsibility and commitment to the task”. However, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “among the Romans, gravitas was thought to be essential to the character and functions of any adult (male) in authority. Even the head of a household or a low-level official would strive for this important virtue.
We use gravitas today to identify the same solemn dignity in men and women”. In view of the foregoing definitions of gravitas, since Polad has male and female participants, they are all expected to embrace this quality in order to ensure that the dialogue process is not deficient of the same quality.
Gravitas for statesmanship
Statesmanship is the hallmark of public administration and interactive diplomacy at intra-state and inter-state levels. Statesmanship is built upon the solid and firm foundation of gravitas. The quality of leaders can be measured with, among other aspects, the manner in which they conduct themselves in conflict management.
National dialogue may be open to abuse for various reasons. Some people embrace national dialogue deceptively in order to stay in power; others do the same in order to earn lucrative positions for personal aggrandisement. This is very bad statecraft. Additionally, in both the formative and advanced stages of national dialogue, some people use highly pejorative language instead of employing the skills of persuasion.
Others simply display a high degree of intransigence and in the process prolonging the problems that are supposed to be solved within a reasonable timeframe.
Some people have very rigid and foolish mindsets. Therefore, it is not surprising that the personality cult has been mistakenly imported into Polad.
The MDC’s legitimacy conditions for dialogue have been misconstrued as individualistic postures intended to skyrocket Nelson Chamisa to an undeserved national position.
This misconception has not only overshadowed gravitas, but has relegated the art of persuasion to the dustbin of mediocrity. What the chair and secretariat of Polad should have done was to demand that prospective parties to Polad put their key dissatisfactions or disaffections in writing and receive fair responses in the same manner.
This would make a good starting point for resolving the fundamental aspects of the stalemate in the Polad formative stages. This is of unfathomable importance now that the MDC has a new political make-up after the May 2019 elective congress.
In view of the above, Mnangagwa or the Polad moderator, thereof, should rein in the political actors like Thokozani Khupe, Lucia Matibenga and Lovemore Madhuku, among other participants. What these people have said in public so far was probably out of frustration caused by what appears to be the lethargic attitude of prospective political actors like the MDC. Khupe castigated what she termed “prophets of doom” for not supporting the Polad initiative.
On the one hand, Matibenga asserted that the issue of the July 2018 elections was a settled matter and that the issues at hand concerns the development of the country. Madhuku clarified perspicaciously, vis-à-vis Alex Tawanda Magaisa’s “The Big Saturday Read” (18 May 2019), the difference between Parliament and Polad.
While Polad’s apologists have the right to put forth such arguments, the arguments sound a bit spurious as they fall short of convincing and persuading the nation on the efficacy of the current constitution and agenda of Polad. Zimbabwe is deeply polarised for various and varied reasons, of which the November 2017 coup d’état and the July 2018 elections, among other issues, cannot be ruled out.
Polad is also alternatively dubbed “State House dialogue”, which presumes that the dialogue is an initiative of the Head of State. This, in principle, is plausible, but in practice it is the centre of deep contention, not because the idea is bad, but due to the questionable modus operandi and the need for unfeigned gravitas.
As submitted by this writer in an article published by the NewsDay on April 10, 2019, an example for a successful national dialogue is Tunisia, where the Arab revolutions began. The main civil society organisations behind this national dialogue, the so-called national dialogue Quartet, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for building the political basis for profound constitutional and institutional reforms.
Although the Tunisian circumstances differed from the Zimbabwean case, a gravitas-filled national dialogue reflects the belief that conflict resolution processes must be as inclusive as possible, involving a broad range of “political actors” and extending beyond a limited set of political players, to include society at large. In these circumstances, Statesmanship is crucial for successful national dialogue and good governance.
Avoiding the “Yellow Vest” syndrome
In order to mitigate the perpetuation of the present socio-political and economic crises, Zimbabwe should avoid the “Yellow Vest” syndrome.
The Yellow Vest Movement is a populist, grassroots political movement for economic justice that began in France in November 2018. According to Wikipedia, after an online petition posted in May 2018 had attracted nearly a million signatures, mass demonstrations began on November 17, 2018 and by December 20, 2018 nine civilians lost their lives and several others severely injured.
The movement is motivated by rising fuel prices, high cost of living, and claims that a disproportionate burden of government’s tax reforms were falling on the working classes, especially in rural and peri-urban areas. The protesters have called for lower fuel taxes, re-introduction of the solidarity tax on wealth, a minimum wage increase, the implementation of citizens’ initiative referendums and Emmanuel Macron’s resignation as President of France. The Yellow Vest Movement spans the political spectrum.
The French experience almost parallels the Zimbabwean situation, whose degeneration should be avoided as the MDC and the labour movement remain in a confrontational mode.
Zimbabweans have been resilient for too long a time and if the present crisis is not addressed with the urgency it deserves, the citizens will run out of patience and make this country ungovernable.
A serious civil strife will definitely damage the economy which is already struggling. Above all, Zimbabwe lost about seven civilians during the August 1, 2018 post-election confrontation between civilians and security forces. The country further lost about twelve civilians during the January 2019 ZCTU-led mass protests against fuel price increases and a general rise in cost of living. This is the reason why Polad needs gravitas to avoid the loss of the sacred lives of innocent people.