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

Guarded Welcome for MDC-ZANU-PF Talks

The general mood is one of cautious optimism rather than expectation of swift, radical change.
Not all Zimbabweans have greeted the signing of a deal between the country’s rival political forces with unalloyed joy. While many welcome the agreement to engage in dialogue, they warn that real change will only come if the outcome is a system where they can choose their leaders through a truly free and fair electoral process.

After protracted efforts by the chief mediator, South African president Thabo Mbeki, to bring President Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the main faction of the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, to the negotiating table, the two men, together with Arthur Mutambara, leader of the smaller MDC faction, met and shook hands for the first time in a decade.

The July 21 signing was hailed by some as a landmark step that could lead to the rebuilding of the country's battered economy, the mood on the streets was one of guarded optimism. As one local resident put it, the people's power to decide their political future has long been usurped by Mugabe, and must be restored in any political settlement.

Typical of the view of many involved in economic affairs was the statement issued on July 22 by Imara Capital Zimbabwe, an asset management firm. While welcoming the development, the statement said, Imara remained “fairly cautious”.

"The key issue remains the economy and the recovery thereof. In pre-election discussions, our high-road scenario envisaged a government with a mandate from the electorate to tackle the hard decisions required to sort out the economy, and backed by this legitimacy able to quickly tap into investor confidence and donor sympathy,” it said. “A government of national unity does not, by definition, have this legitimacy, which slows recovery prospects."

The memorandum of understanding sets out a framework of an agenda for negotiations, expected to last two weeks, on an “inclusive government”, political rights, a new constitution and economic recovery.

The dialogue is intended to overcome the tensions created by the June 27 presidential run-off in which Mugabe ended up running alone, and winning. Despite winning more votes in the first round on March 29, Tsvangirai withdrew from the race a few days before the polls, citing the mounting violence targeting his supporters.

Alex Moyo, a Harare businessman, dismissed the signing as a non-event, saying it could only have worked if the agenda had been mainly to set a date for another election through which the will of the people could be properly expressed.

"What is important is that the inalienable right of the people to elect who should govern them must be restored before people can talk about economic recovery," he said. "The MoU [memorandum of understanding] and the subsequent talks do not guarantee that this happens."

On the streets, many people said the very fact the political opponents had met and signed an agreement held out hope of a new beginning.

"We will just wait and see how it goes,” said high school teacher Thabani Moyo. “For now all we want is a return to normality. We cannot continue like this. We can only hope for the best."

Simon Makanza, a 30-year-old unemployed man, was surprised that Mugabe had agreed to meet Tsvangirai at all.

"Mugabe has said some nasty things about the MDC, but I hope that the very fact that they met to sign the MoU could mean better things ahead," he said. "People are fed up with the political bickering and want to get on with their lives."

Mugabe, who blames the West rather than his own policies for the country's economic decline, last week launched a programme intended to bring cheap basic commodities to the people in the form of subsidised food hampers. But there are already many complaints that the local officials and chiefs in charge of distribution ensure that only ZANU-PF supporters receive the hampers.

Shop shelves are still empty a year after a controversial government edict that retailers must slash their prices, The bulk of basic commodities are now sold only on the thriving parallel market, where prices are beyond the reach of many Zimbabweans.

The latest statistics from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe show the year-on-year inflation rate at more than 2.2 million per cent, but independent economists put the figure at about five times that.

Fanuel Gama, an analyst with a local rights group, says people are right to be guarded in their optimism about the chances of rapid economic recovery.

"It has already been said the country's woes will not be solved overnight; that the economy will spring to its feet only with the exit of Mugabe. Zimbabweans have lost faith in politics and they can only sit and wait," Gama said. "But we should give it a chance and see how it goes. The people have no choice.”

Joseph Nhlanhla is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe.