Zim politics: Dialogue of the deaf

Renewed calls for a genuine national dialogue have increased in the wake of the recent elections held in August 2023, which were largely criticised by both local and international observers.

THE foundation of a functional state and society is a healthy dialogical relationship between the state and its citizens.

At present, Zimbabwe desperately needs this healthy dialogical process in order to avert a constitutional and political crisis or at the extreme a violent conflict.

The urgency of a healthy national dialogue cannot be overemphasised given that the country has just emerged from an election with a contested outcome, and that the country’s economic performance remains in an intensive care unit.

However, since 1980, the country has been subjected to dialogues of the deaf, hence its failure to transition from a conflictual democracy to consensual democracy. Dialogue of the deaf exists when each of the conflicting parties are not responsive to what the other party is saying. The conflicting parties maintain their positions and without regard for the common good of their needs. This is the case within the Zimbabwean body politic. Since the 1979 Lancaster House negotiations to the 2009 Government of National Unity (GNU), Zimbabwe’s ‘national’ dialogues have largely been dialogically deaf.

With every contested election and growing economic instability, political polarisation among Zimbabweans has increased. This polarisation shapes the manner in which political debates prevail.

What has emerged from these debates has largely been a dialogue of the deaf, where political affiliation - perceived or pronounced - becomes the determinant of who will listen, hence act.

In the last election, for example, Zimbabwe African National Patriotic Front (Zanu PF) and Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) emerged as the dominant alternatives for the electorate, both sets of parties emerged on extreme tangent, unresponsive to each other’s views, needs and interests.

While other opposition parties and Zimbabweans from all walks of life have sought to add their voices to this polarised discourse, it has remained a subdued effort.

Dialogues of the deaf

The 1979 Lancaster House negotiations, the Zapu and Zanu unity dialogues and the Global Political Agreement negotiations are examples of historical discourses that demonstrate patterns of dialogues of the deaf.

These dialogues were void of the citizens’ inputs because they were based on political parties’ positional interests.

The establishment of the Political Actors Dialogue (Polad) forum following a disputed election in 2018 was a nobble initiative which, unfortunately, turned dialogically deaf. A review of Polad’s work reveals that parties in the forum were unresponsive to each other’s concerns, rendering the platform irrelevant. For example, the forum suggested roughly 16 legislative reforms, but none were comprehensively implemented.

Also, Polad lacked inclusivity; it was a forum for political parties without churches, civil society, business, and the citizens. More regrettable is that Polad evolved into a monologue organised, run, and moderated by the government.

Renewed calls for a genuine national dialogue have increased in the wake of the recent elections held in August 2023, which were largely criticised by both local and international observers.

However, there are indications that the dialogue may continue using the Polad platform, hence perpetuating dialogues of the deaf. At present, incredibly strange variables perpetuating dialogues of the deaf in Zimbabwe’s political economy conundrum include behavioural evidence of political parties, the media and us, the citizens.

Political parties

Zimbabwe’s political and economic crises requires a progressive dialogue between the ruling and opposition parties. However, predictably so, the parties’ ideological positions have long created a dialogue of the deaf by focusing on ideological positions before listening to problem-solving ideas. Henceforth, political pundits such as Justice Afred Mavedzenge, and Freeman Chari contend that the opposition cannot take criticism, it is deaf to internal dialogues while Brian Raftopoulos, Pedzisai Ruhanya and Ibbo Mandaza assert that the ruling party, as a governing party, is unyielding to public censure.

The implication is a nationally consummated dialogues of the deaf run by the ruling party and the opposition.

Zimbabwe’s politics is bipartisan, dichotomous, and polarising with a deep divide between the ruling party and the opposition, and with mutual accusations of puppetry and authoritarianism.

To find each other it would be helpful if issues of corruption, poor service delivery, inflation, political sovereignty are the entry points to dialogue as opposed to ideological mantra and party positions.

Dialogically deaf engagements are worsened by international players such as the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and neighbours like South Africa, who acknowledge Zimbabwe's political problems while also publicly echoing one-sided viewpoints in the nation's socio-political discourses.

The media

The media serves a critical purpose in informing and educating citizens. It catalyses the Zimbabwean citizens dialogue, airing events in the country, publicising the people opinions, and communicating political views and decisions from the government to the citizens and projections from political parties. However, the country is being subjected to the dialogue of the deaf by the polarity between the state and private medias. The private media, for example, is projected as a courier for citizens’ grievances and an opposition appendage while state media is recognised as the government and ruling party’s official mouthpiece.

This dichotomous projection hinders a progressive national dialogue.

The media must promote progressive dialogues that advance national development instead of perpetuating political hypocrisy.

The citizens

All citizens want a responsive and accountable government that can meet their expectations for service delivery and economic development. However, when engaging in public and private conversations concerning national development and service delivery, those affiliated to the ruling party and the opposition are often fixated on party positions and ideological orientations. This automatically creates a dialogue of the deaf where political affiliation becomes superior to real problems requiring redress. This explains why any debate on education, access to water, refuse collection and public health must be divorced from the ruling or opposition party finger pointing.

Beyond the dialogue of the deaf

The Zimbabwean government, ruling party, and opposition parties, because of the present political and social contract must dialogue to better the country’s economic and political situation.

A national dialogue is inevitable, but it has to shift from a dialogue of the deaf to a genuine dialogue of rationalists who are messengers of the people.

There is need for political parties in Zimbabwe to go beyond electoral disputes to consider working on people-focused interests and needs, beyond their flawed political contestations. Maintaining hardline positions only create a dialogue of the deaf epitomised by superiority and inferiority complexities yet service delivery including access to public health services, education, employment opportunities and many more have nothing to do with partisan dialogues, but the people’s interests and needs.

To achieve this, shifting the conditions of polarisation at all levels of the polity is crucial. This work needs to be done by all parties by ending ideological and opinion power contests that are far from meeting national development expectations. This will, in turn, advance trust building and collaborative problem-solving measures.


When executing national duties in Parliament and Council Chambers both the ruling party and the opposition must end dialoguing on party positions. For the country’s social and economic development both parties must focus on public policy issues and service delivery problem solving mechanisms as opposed to projecting party positions at the expense of rational decision-making.

At present, political parties, the media, business, and the state are all engaged in a dialogue of the deaf. No one is being responsive to what the other has to say.

At worst there is always an actor that is unresponsive and acts with impunity. This is despite that all actors in the political space including political parties, the business and citizens argue that they want to promote the country’s socio-economic development and political sovereignty yet their failure to dialogue and forge a common purpose is the source of the country’s current problems.

The country’s economy will not grow when corruption remains high, when natural resources are exploited without accountability and when appropriate governance checks and balances are frequently frustrated. The ruling party must stop projecting itself as the most superior entity by depicting the opposition as inferior thereby disempowering their purposeful role in the country’s governance.

On the other hand, the opposition must act with coherence and tactfully perform its role as an opposition in government. Both must function as actors in government with a responsibility to fulfil the social contract.

  • Dr Mandikwaza is a peace, mediation and development specialist for Centre for Mediation in Africa, University of Pretoria. These weekly New Perspectives articles, published in the Zimbabwe Independent, are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, managing consultant of Zawale Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe. — [email protected] or +263 772 382 852.


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