Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Frustration as Zimbabwe Talks Miss Deadline

Zimbabweans say politicians seem too worried about their own futures to think of wider problems.
By Joseph Nhlanhla
As the deadline set for talks between Zimbabwe’s rival parties expired on August 4, many ordinary people are worried about the economic consequences of any delay in finding a political settlement.

According to the Memorandum of Understanding signed on July 21 by President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and the two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, the negotiations were scheduled to conclude within two weeks.

The result, it is thought, could be some kind of transitional government which could both lead Zimbabwe out of the current political impasse and begin reversing the long-term devastation of its economy.

The pressure was on the negotiators to reach a settlement within that time frame, but international media reported that the talks ground to a halt in late July, with the teams flying back from South Africa to update their respective political leaderships. At that point it was apparent that the deadline was going to be missed.

Analysts said the tight deadline was intended as a way of pressuring Mugabe to agree to terms that could force him to cede at least some of his powers. However, failure to agree on whether he or Morgan Tsvangirai, who heads the main MDC faction, should head any new administration remains a sticking-point.

For ordinary Zimbabweans, the extension of the negotiations means no end to the economy’s implosion is in sight. Some are irritated that politicians appear to be ignoring the urgency of the situation.

“Some of us did not think the setting of a deadline was practical, but now that the deadline had been passed without any major breakthroughs, it means this could drag on for much longer,” said Thomas Selo, a former freedom fighter with PF ZAPU, a party that was absorbed by ZANU-PF in the late 1980s.

“Negotiations are about making compromises, but it is obvious here that this thing is now beyond the control of the people of Zimbabwe, who have to do nothing but watch as politicians fail to put the people first.”

Enoch Paradzai of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe expressed similar disappointment, saying, “We were looking forward to the talks to bring about something for us. It means our hardships are set to continue.

“We are in dire straits and what we want is not a political solution to our crisis, but an economic solution. They can keep talking, but for us the economy must take first priority."

Although the negotiators are under a blanket ban on talking to the media, reports from the talks suggest the process has been dogged by personality clashes, and that hard-line members of the talks teams are reluctant to make any concessions.

According to human rights activist Desmond Zondo, the opposition may have underestimated ZANU-PF’s resolve not to give ground.

“Obviously the two MDCs…firmly believed they had an upper hand, and leeway, in that Mugabe had agreed to the talks,” said Zondo. “But with people like Chinamasa at the table, this impasse was to be expected.”

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, who is Mugabe’s chief negotiator at the talks, is seen as a hawk who will give as little away to the opposition as he can.

Top officials in Mugabe’s administration have much to fear from political change – as well as losing their positions, some risk probes into the source of their assets or their role in past human rights abuses, including the 100-plus people the MDC says were murdered by ZANU-PF and its allies in the run-up to the controversial second-round presidential election of June 27.

In the past, Tendai Biti, now chief negotiator for the MDC faction led by Tsvangirai – who pulled out of the June 27 polls because of mounting violence – has said that if the party wins power, it will investigate alleged crimes committed by members of the current regime.

Amid the uncertainty over whether the talks can really produce a workable compromise between apparently reconcilable political forces, many people like housewife Pauline Khumalo believe the politicians are simply being selfish - more concerned with their internecine troubles than with the real problems facing Zimbabweans.

“I hate feeling helpless, but there is nothing I can do but wait for these people [political leaders] to decide our fate,” she said. “This country used to be paradise, but as long as these politicians keep thinking about themselves, there will be no country to speak of.”

Joseph Nhlanhla is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe.