Dr. Walter Mzembi breaks his silence

As the Zimbabwe crisis worsens former long-serving Tourism Minister and candidate in the last UNWTO Secretary-General elections, Dr. Walter Mzembi breaks his silence to weigh in with a prescription on the dialogue between the two main protagonists, incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his nemesis Nelson Chamisa.

The Zimbabwean hospitality industry has recently published huge nose dives up to 30% in hotel occupancy dues to a myriad of policy failures.

We publish in the following a perspective from the respected former Minister now based in South Africa

Funerals in our culture are an opportunity to vent one’s deep-seated opinions and emotions on topical issues, be they personal, family or national, whilst enjoying the same privileges and protection akin to academic freedom. I seek to do exactly that, “kurova bembera” in chishona before this special window closes following the sad but anticipated departure of Zimbabwe’s founding father, President Robert Gabriel Mugabe.

“Rome can’t continue to burn while we watch”, something is evidently going very wrong in our country and I apologize for upfront if I offend as I attempt to share national experiences that helped similar challenges in the recent past.

Proverbs 1:9 will acquit me: “What has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun.”  The 15th-century great historian, Thucydides, rhymes the same: “It is the very nature of humans to act in the future as they did in the past.” History repeats itself, and humanity learns from past mistakes and recalibrates its decisions and actions based on these past experiences.

What can we, in pursuit of solutions to the current crisis, learn from the Zanu PF-Zapu Talks of 1987 which resulted in a broad-based unity government; or distill from the Zanu PF-MDC talks that resulted in the Government of National Unity of 2009 and how both talks were triggered?

The invaluable role of public opinion – for instance, civil society, the church, cross-party agents, lobbyists, etc – and the building of national consensus on the need to talk or talk about talks, and ultimately the escalation of it all to party agendas, the government, and right up to the main protagonists, is very much needed.

I appeal to the public to be on the lookout for selfish people seeking to outlaw and spike comradely conversation or opinion by these change agents seeking national convergence. They need your protection and encouragement in their apostolic burden to unite the country.

In my public service career,  I have been hosted by families in the United States, United Kingdom and even nearer home, South Africa, and observed family members who belong to different political parties dine and debate hours on end over their political beliefs without exchanging blows or spilling blood. This is political maturity.

Setting the stage as one Member of Parliament from my home province of Masvingo has done by using metaphorical language and anecdotes to encourage dialogue, should not be punishable by excommunication, otherwise, it will amount to clearly intolerant and bigoted politics in this 21st century. It’s time to soften positions and here I appeal to  Speaker of Parliament to continue on the constructive rapprochement path he had chosen, and not lose focus miffed by parliamentary boycotts, keep your eye on the ball, and move away from unnecessary and draconian censure.

A typical American family has both Democrats and Republicans but they do not wish each other ill or death, nor do they express their differences in ideology and beliefs in medieval political sloganeering reminiscent of the Byzantine or Crusaders era! They debate.

I, more than anyone else from the late Robert Mugabe-led Zanu PF, fraternized with Morgan Tsvangirai across party and ideological divide and we were close at the personal and governmental level where he led us as Prime Minister.

We knew each other before, from our stints in industry, so at a time when it was a taboo to submit to his authority as PM or salute him which many of our decorated military men refused to do at many public events in very embarrassing stunts, I defied the Zanu PF caucus directives and accorded him my respect within the precincts and boundaries of officialdom and protocol, earning some in despicable labels in the process.

However, Prime Minister Tsvangirai instead discerned a patriotic sense of duty and selflessness, a genuine manifestation of the inclusive spirit required at the time to make the inclusive government work.

No wonder he saw it fit to conscript me, albeit with protestations from Zanu PF into his delegation for the famous June 2009, 21-day, 14-country re-engagement trip. President Mugabe, ever the statesman, consented to my inclusion notwithstanding protestations from our party.

The delegation included notable opposition figures like Hon Tendai Biti, Elton Mangoma, Priscilla Misihairabwi Mushonga, and in London, we were joined by Simbarashe Mumbengegwi.

Amid protestations from my party, Robert Mugabe wondered what more harm I could bring to Zanu PF than the “Bhora musango” which had just delivered the electoral stalemate of 2008, resulting in power-sharing. With Mugabe’s authority, I left with very clear instructions to understudy the MDC global network and report back. We needed to reopen our own lines of communication with the West, he implored.

I never witnessed again in my tenure in government such a united team in defense of our motherland like this largely opposition outfit! They were out to prove something, the latent energy, and skills that can be brought to the fore and at the disposal of the State if there is unity of purpose.

I witnessed it at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when we met Senators John Kerry and McCain and argued before a full house for the repeal of Zidera sanctions, and later a similarly spirited effort in Brussels for the revocation of Article 96 later to happen on November 2014 after the planting of these arguments against sanctions.

We left the entire Washington power matrix and Western Europe in a state of amazement on what new spirit had seized Zimbabwe that made us speak with one voice on challenges besetting it, a very rare feat to this very day and hour!

This international whirlwind diplomatic tour initiated the rebranding and stabilization of Zimbabwe at the time, including a commencement to mending our then and even now more acerbic relations with parts of the globe.

Notwithstanding we returned with less than the expected monetary and financial booty against the much-hyped $800m target, but what Zanu PF and many people did not realize and count then were the intangible benefits of the trip. Morgan Tsvangirai who carried the cross of the inclusive government, canvassed, marketed and endorsed its legitimacy, but most specifically the legitimacy of the then Robert Gabriel Mugabe during this controversial trip.

I recall many Heads of State, Prime Ministers and other global VVIPs, including Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel, John McCain, John Kerry, Barosso, etc, questioning Tsvangirai’s wisdom of “going to bed with Robert Mugabe”, to which he would coarsely and impatiently retort that he was doing it in the national interest .

“Our people are suffering and this is a painkiller prescription,” he would add, reminding several audiences that he was in it, regardless of his electoral disputes with Robert Mugabe, but Zimbabwe came first! He would then tactfully draft me, as the Zanu PF component of the delegation, into the conversations to confirm to each of them that we were in fact from the same Government and all was well.

I was part of all these engagements except a courtesy call on President Obama who reportedly would not see me because I was from a “terrorist organization”, Zanu PF! This later turned out to be false as I was outmaneuvered by the delegation when Hilary Clinton asked me to stay behind after an earlier meeting as she had a special message for Robert Mugabe which she wanted me to convey.

This created some uneasiness that saw me being snooked out of the Whitehouse meeting. This was political maneuvering within us but it did not take us off track!

It is important to note, however, that these engagements happened in the context of a  national unity government, inclusive government as some preferred to call it,  a lesson for today as history so quickly repeats itself. We have a political stalemate similar to that of 2008. Our embarrassing counter-arguments and ambushing of each other at world fora, SADC, WEF, UNGA, etc, speaks to a nation in conflict.

Backroom diplomatic backbiting is at its peak. I am reminded of the recission of the decision to recognise former President Robert Mugabe as WHO Ambassador in 2017, a few weeks before the coup, like the current Havard University saga around our First Lady, where she is destined to meet a similar fate, not because she is not a meritorious candidate just like Mugabe was, but because she comes from Zimbabwe – that is how much we have damaged our brand through internal conflict.

She should not look too far, it is within the family; not just the opposition but within Zanu PF, that is where the instigation starts. I have very painful personal experiences of this treachery and that is how I also “lost” the Secretary-General race for the UNWTO and told plainly that notwithstanding that I was the best candidate and the most qualified for the job, “the world was not ready for a Mugabe protege to preside over a UN Agency”.

The attendant celebration from my own Party when I lost this race, is legendary. This is the same UN today where the optics are certainly not encouraging as our President delivered his address.

Back to the 2009 trip, contrary to what is happening now, we soon learned, and this is absolute reality and advice to the Harare administration, that legitimacy is conferred by your political opponents, not by self, your choir, or opportunity and job hunters. It was Tsvangirai’s legitimacy lobby and endorsement that became the lifeblood of the inclusive government as Chamisa can do for President Mnangagwa and his government, God willing and commonsense prevailing.

We were soon after able to enjoy the goodwill of other nations, including reluctantly by our own people, many of whom did not like Zanu PF nor had voted for it. The first-round voting in 2008 had just confirmed Morgan’s popularity at 47%, with Mugabe trailing at 43%; so no matter how sound economic policymaking is, (dear Prof Mthuli) if it does not enjoy public confidence it will fail as is evident today. It’s the politics stupid.

Playing cat-and-mouse policy games with a politically reluctant and indifferent public will not work. We have been on this road before and Zimbabweans know what works for them, recalling the respite from economic hardship they enjoyed during the GNU era.

Zimbabweans also remember the lessons of Zimbabwe Rhodesia, when armed struggle escalated and economic conditions worsened when Ian Smith engaged in dialogue with the wrong team led by Bishop Abel Muzorewa, ignoring the popular and legitimate Patriotic Front. Zimbabweans are looking and waiting for practical solutions, the only and first signal being the ability of protagonists to work together. It’s a confidence issue. They can bear the pain if it is shared, not selective austerity.

Similarly, the busting of international sanctions – a strategy largely eluding even this current government – was conceived successfully by Rhodesia and repeated by the inclusive branding and seeming unity of purpose of the GNU and Morgan Tsvangirai’s apostolic mission on its behalf. He would advise us repeatedly not to mourn or bleat over sanctions, but learn from Ian Smith’s template – bust them, work around them, and deliver notwithstanding.

During this period, we got official and unofficial assistance on how and what to bust of these sanctions from their authors and implementers. A megaphone anti- lobby, such as the one currently at play, we soon learnt would not help much for many who supported us in broad daylight for solidarity optics, Nicodemus agreed with Europe and USA when approached individually.

We also learned that anti-sanctions demos both at home and abroad benefitted bureaucratic organizers who pocketed a lot of unexplained money in the name of mobilization and hiring of lobbyists. It is no different now a few years down the line.

DEMAF – a non-governmental option of direct assistance to beneficiaries that brought immense relief to our people, and was creative budgetary support and sanctions-busting solution with two or three cluster ministries administering it but one that avoided disbursement through Central Government – was born out of this trip.

My own much-applauded sectoral achievements as Tourism Minister, these too were sanctions-busting steps and rebranding processes, and followed this philosophy including the successful hosting of the 20th session of the UNWTO General Assembly, held a few days after our general elections, becoming the highest global endorsement of Brand Zimbabwe since independence. My own elective goes at the office of Secretary-General of the UNWTO was within this context as well.

The tragedy of the current meltdown in Zimbabwe and its current actors from both Zanu PF and MDC, is that unlike our 2009 scenario led by Robert Gabriel Mugabe and Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, it is difficult to sense the humility and empathy for the immense suffering of our people that is required to nudge the gladiators to negotiations.

Dr. Walter Mzembi breaks silence: Unity in Zimbabwe will fix the economy

Election UNWTO General Assembly Chengdu

Dr. Walter Mzembi breaks silence: Unity in Zimbabwe will fix the economy

Dr. Taleb Rifai & Dr. Walter Mzembi, UNWTO


Dr. Walter Mzembi

The public senses cooled hearts, point-scoring, and intransigence. This assessment stems from nowhere else except the abundance of the hearts whereupon the mouth speaks. An overdose of propaganda laced with hate and self-interest, particularly on social media, is driving a yawning wedge between the protagonists which is sacrificing national interest.

A ceasefire and restraint, if not a complete abandonment of those who pukes hate language on behalf of both the President and Nelson Chamisa, is an absolute necessity. If the “actors” succeed in taming vanity as Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai did, Zimbabweans can hope for a solution soon.

Dialogue, homegrown, mediated locally or internationally, founded on vanity and hatred is bound to fail. Humility on the part of the actors and with it a recognition that you are not conceding for self but for the national interest is supercritical.

Yesterday’s enforcers are now the leaders and they will quickly have to take responsibility to end the suffering of our people. Unfortunately, where they are placed we are their people, all of us good or bad regardless.

I also note the presence of numerous new deployments in leadership, many freshmen/women in the two mainstream parties and government, including an army of Presidential advisors, all these have to quickly mature away from sycophancy, play their part in moving Zimbabwe towards “genuine dialogue”, convergence, and a greater interest in statecraft as we did during our time with the two late heroes.

Shingi Munyeza in the last few days has been doing exactly what is expected of advisors. The public is watching you folks, and unfortunately, there is no school that prepares one for these deployments and their expectations, and history will judge you harshly notwithstanding if you continue Micky-moussing with people’s lives.

Honesty and integrity, especially in an advisory role, are super-critical, not just to the President but to the opposition leadership too. Robert Mugabe for all his weaknesses was a great listener and follower of debate in pursuit of superior ideas. I would drag him into arguments and gridlocks in Cabinet, a few brave colleagues too, and withstand my ground without him being offended – my argument for the adoption of the rand as anchor currency and my opposition to Command Agriculture being but just examples.

I am very sure President Mnangagwa, having spent the longest time as Mugabe’s advisor (55 years), my lifetime age, has the same shock absorbers. So don’t be afraid to genuinely and correctly advise him, folks.

For progress, the President himself will have to wax his ears to hardline and selfish impressionable advice and do the right thing and engage his nemesis Nelson Chamisa. To his credit, Nelson has public opinion behind him, he has over two million voters, largely urbanites, while the President has the State and an equivalent following, mainly rural.

I hate to acknowledge this rural-urban divide and its polemics, and soon we have to cure it. ED doesn’t need advisors nor POLAD on this, just his conscience to do the right thing for Zimbabwe. Call the young man who, as far as I can remember from our cabinet sittings, actually revered the “Crocodile”.

Yes invite him to an intimate tete-a-tete over a cup of coffee, tea or bottle of Coke/ Fanta ( I predict he will opt for the latter as he did during his entire Cabinet tenure ) and share intimately your vision for Zimbabwe and how you envisage him and his team being part of it. He will recognize you at your level of competitors, “zvoto zvine mazera” as you would frequently say during our time.

Humiliating him by mixing apples and oranges, has not worked. I propose wisdom packaged in humility Mr. President, which is not a weakness but shrewdness. Mugabe did it for Zimbabwe, and it worked! Tea and biscuits with Mugabe was Tsvangirai’s most cherished moment if you remember, and it was the height of personal diplomacy for both, admirable to say the least.

Chamisa too, it’s high time you recalibrated your conditions for dialogue, a tactical retreat is not defeated or humiliation, and advancing to 2023 without recognizing the Presidency of ED in lieu of acceptable national dialogue, mediation, and political reforms will be fatal in the next elections. Already voter apathy in by-elections speaks to fatigue of known outcomes by our people.  I see local,  regional or international underwriting of undertakings as a prerequisite to a breakthrough. As it stands there is no registered dispute and acknowledgment of this standoff beyond the Constitutional Court ruling in SADC, AU , etc that prompts action or further attention, so no mediation can take place without being interpreted as interference. It is, therefore, time to reach out or to be inclined to overtures, lots of covert political baiting is on the horizon and it is time to crystallize your set of demands, either side.

A handy example Chamisa may want to consider is Ghana 2013. The presidential election of December 2012 produced a stalemate, in fact, the narrowest of wins for the incumbent President John Mahama. The losing opposition candidate, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo disputed the result and went to court. Unlike Zimbabwe where the Constitution mandates the Constitutional Court to resolve such disputes within 14 days, in Ghana, there is no upper seal. Thus, it took the Supreme Court, the country’s highest court, 10 long months to settle the dispute.

When the court decision finally came, it was as close as the electoral result: 5-4 in favor of President Mahama. Five justices of the Supreme Court had ruled for Mahama as against 4 for Akufo-Addo. It was that close! Remarkably, Akufo-Addo had the expanded wisdom to accept the painful defeat. So he picked up the phone and called President Mahama, 10 months after the election, and conceded defeat. He wished the President well and became the official opposition.

Akufo-Addo then spent the rest of 2013, 2014, and 2015 mobilizing his troops and the nation for the next election in December 2016. And cometh the hour, he won hands down. On 7 January 2020, Akufo-Addo will celebrate his third anniversary in office as President of Ghana.

His story must be a salutary lesson for Mr. Chamisa and the Alliance. Nelson went to the Constitutional Court and lost 9-0. Unlike Akufo-Addo, all the nine justices of the highest electoral court in the land ruled against him. Painful though it may be, there is no virtue in political intransigence, especially when measured against the immense suffering our people are now subjected to. They are suffering our politics which we need to reform and whilst the President is the keyhole, you are the master key and no door shall open to Zimbabwe meaningfully without this complementary action. You both know it, so do the people.

For the sake of national interest, and in the interest of the long-suffering people of our dear motherland, my plea to my brother Nelson is for him to be Zimbabwe’s Akufo-Addo. Accept defeat as a  temporary setback, and remember if anyone feels shortchanged it is not you but the voters. They will vote again for you only if you reassure them through bargained for reforms that their vote will be tamper-proof.   And use the remaining years between now and the next elections in 2023 to mobilize your troops and the nation and push for reforms.  Who knows you can really be Zimbabwe’s Akufo-Addo in 2023.

The Church should also continue praying for the softening of hearts, but the Church is not best placed where we are with this crisis to mediate, for you long took sides. Again, we have been there with you before.

To Nelson, an enshrined official opposition is better than being a junior partner in government. Insisting on being in government has many displacements and casualties from the ruling party whose elements have the potential to scuttle a deal. Their response to dialogue is predictable and inevitable, but selfish, we have been there too. No statesman pays attention to these especially arguments driven by self-interest.

You will inevitably be frustrated by the government. We have been there together before. Better to prepare unhindered for 2023 under a reformed and internationally guaranteed environment. A return to constitutionalism with the attendant political reforms is paramount. You will see this with better clarity from outside but as patriotic opposition. The recent SONA boycotts,  I am afraid at this stage are unhelpful and read as hypocrisy for a party that has not boycotted parliamentary perks and privileges nor Parliamentary  Question Time where Ministers appointed by the same President field questions. Boycotts are tired antics in this season. They achieve nothing more than the hardening of positions, justify and acquit the selfish elements against dialogue.  By the way, Beverley ‘s erotic dances, no different from Mbare Chimurenga gyrations during MDC20,  reminded one of Salome’s proverbial dance before Herod Antipas which cost John the Baptist his head and life. For a party positioning itself as an alternative leadership and government in the midst of a serious economic meltdown, that kind of entertainment menu does not inspire people,  their hope and confidence that tomorrow could be different and better. Weighed against SONA and the need to create the right atmospherics for dialogue,  I would bear the pain of the audience in the pursuit of rapprochement.

For conceiving a divergent philosophy on multi-partyism resulting in his labor-anchored party, Morgan is the “father of democracy” in Zimbabwe, and we should reserve for him and the likes of Joshua Nkomo, and Edgar Tekere at philosophical and institutional level, places of honor for them in the yet to come Hall of Fame and Centre for Democracy and Liberty.

The brief for the Centre may include literal works and academic research into this very important subject and the characters that have shaped the democratic discourse in Zimbabwe over time. This becomes our second edition of celebrating contemporary and emerging heroes going forward.

This does not imply perfection or sainthood on the part of Morgan, no; he was by no means an angel. For instance, what he and the MDC misread at the time was the necessity of a transitional authority perpetually accountable to SADC and AU for its deliverables, not an autonomous GNU because, as events and time would prove, not a single of the agreed reforms under the Mbeki-brokered talks was implemented in five years, not even one, hence our current national crisis!

The facilitator himself, very well-meaning as he was and a man of high integrity, was consumed by untimely courtyard politics at home, removing a very pertinent point of reference in terms of accountability, and as it turned out the latter half the GNU became a cat-and-mouse government as we headed for the 2013 elections. A railroad into elections without reform is as good as political suicide and I recall even SADC warned Tsvangirai at the time.

The MDC component in government was outfoxed at every stage by the experience and disdain of its senior partner, Zanu PF. I need not expose who the chief enforcer of this chess game was, your guess is as good as mine. Suffice to mention that the MDC exited the inclusive government a very disillusioned partner, confirming the fears of the Western Hemisphere during our 2009 trip. This explains why we harvested less in terms of financial pledges!

In the most recent past, the MDC were accessories in settling the unending succession struggles of Zanu PF and now face a far more complex situation than before! The MDC’s difficulty is not made easier by the new empty-stadiums-syndrome which is sweeping the country and negatively affecting the two main parties in equal measure. I see it as a dangerous signpost for both parties.

For example, Mugabe’s official funeral service at the National Sports Stadium will long be remembered by the empty seats that greeted his casket and the VVIPs. Days later, President Mnangagwa had the difficult job of speaking to empty seats at the UN General Assembly in New York. And as if on cue, MDC’s 20th-anniversary celebration at the Rufaro Stadium was similarly received by empty seats. And all this following the heels of voter apathy in by-elections!

This new development must greatly worry about the country’s two main parties because the people are speaking through the empty stadiums and are saying they are tired of the current model of Zimbabwe politics that has brought them no solutions. They want a new model that will deliver results and enhance their dignity.

To me, the empty stadiums are a tell-tale sign of the peoples’ growing disillusionment and frustrations with both the MDC and Zanu PF. If I were a football referee, I would say these are yellow cards for both parties. The red cards are in the offing.

Therefore, in resetting dialogue going forward, our national conversation cannot lead to the same glaring failures and mistakes, nor can it achieve less by the government assembling a “church choir” and preaching to it, and it is here where I plead for the sincerity and necessity of “genuine dialogue” in the national interest.

Our late founding father, whose legacy is a complex one has been different things to different people, will be remembered most for the creation of a stable unitary state, universal education, and delivering the land. For the greater part of his career, he balanced and tamed divergent and hostile forces within the political family of Zanu PF, including at the national level – the GNU being a case in point.

Earlier on, it had been the Unity Accord of 1987.  In hindsight, it is not far-fetched therefore to conclude that when he departed from this model through two successive purges, that saw his two Vice Presidents as casualties in 2014 and 2017 respectively, he was left exposed and weaker, and eventually ended up the major victim.

I debated this thoroughly and robustly with him post-November 2017, between January and September 2018, when we were discussing a host of issues and we agreed on “unity” as supreme, both in Zanu PF and other parties and ultimately in the State. “Other parties”, yes although we hold no brief from them, except to say excessive political fragmentation resulting in 130 registered parties is in itself not a democracy but a clear sign of a nation in conflict with evident lack of submission to each other.

There are no clear ideological beliefs underlying the essence of these parties formed as businesses and vengeful groups scattering national energy into smithereens!

President Mugabe had hoped a framework on the reunification of the Zanu PF we crafted together with former Minister Makhosini Hlongwane would find takers in the new dispensation, but unfortunately, the reception was inordinately hostile, with counter initiatives announced at the time to scuttle what he wanted to communicate then. The framework foresaw a loss or the narrow margin which President Mnangagwa claimed victory by, under 1% above the 50% threshold and we were at the time persuading Mugabe to endorse his successor in pursuit of unity and his legacy. It is a matter of public knowledge that he, later on, endorsed Nelson Chamisa resulting in partly the current gridlock.  A two-thirds majority in the legislature by Zanu PF  did not contrary to past trends translate to a mirror Presidential ballot. Mnangagwa , Mugabe rapprochement as envisaged by the framework to be declassified in the future, never happened hence all the ensuing drama resulting in his burial in Zvimba, not Heroes Acre.

I hope one day we can pick the pieces and in pursuit of his wishes then, his quest for a united Zanu PF, vibrant opposition parties, and subsequently a  united country. This can find currency in the various initiatives at play. A tolerant but strong ruling party with a few but viable checkmate government in waiting opposition parties is good for the country, especially if they are united on national interest whilst competing fiercely in an enabling environment.

Unity of purpose in a country is a fertile ground for innovative economic policies and ultimately its prosperity. Seek ye unity first and everything else will follow thereafter … and in this, my final appeal is for President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Nelson Chamisa to bite the bullet, come off their high horses and engage in the national interest as a matter of urgency.

The almost surgical 50% split of the presidential ballot is an instruction on national convergence and power-sharing from the people. They are getting impatient with politics and its leadership because of collective failure to read and interpret this signal. Their frustrations are manifesting in the economy, which has become the elephant in the room,  going forward to fixing the politics will fix the economy!