The Church has been trying to forge a political role in Zimbabwe to offer an alternative to the fractious state that has characterised contestation for power. Last year, the clergy proposed the idea of “Election Sabbath” but it did not get traction. Yet the Church is not giving up Review & Mail recently caught up with Dr Reverend Kenneth Mtata, who is the general Secretary of Zimbabwe Council of Churches and coordinator at the National Convergence Platform to pick his thoughts on the developments.
Q: The Church and in particular, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, has bee trying to incubate a solution to the nation crisis in Zimbabwe. How do you evaluate the process so far?
A: Dealing with the challenges facing Zimbabwe requires a consensus building process because Zimbabwe because Zimbabweans don’t even agree on what the problem we are facing as a nation is. For this reason, there is need to build consensus at grassroots level, at a more organised society and also at political and policy levels. It is this consensus building process that we think we have been pushing along and as far as the journey is concerned we think we are making progress.
Q: What is it that there was little buy-in for the idea of what you called “Election Sabbath”?
A: I think there were many reasons. The first reason was that many people never took time to read the call itself, they only heard it from grapevine and what they heard was a summary of the insignificant part of the call (…) they focused on the seven years (proposed suspension of elections) but not on the substance of the call. But the other reason why there was little buy-in was because there were a number of interests that this call threatened. For, politicians whose life cycle are elections, they don’t see how they can survive without elections. For those organisations that are dependent on the election cycle, they see this threatening their basic livelihoods and for those constituional fundamentalists who see the call for suspension of some aspect of the constitution, they see this as a violation of the Constitution. For this latter group, which was the basis for the rejection by some in the political arena, now I think they realise the call was in actual fact an important intervention on the kinds of calls that we are hearing to amend 27 provisions of the Constitution instead of just one call that the Church was making.
Q: How does it feel working in a polarised environment characterised by fear and mistrust?
A: I think this is the appropriate enviroment to work if you are faith-driven because the basis of our work as an ecumenical body is to call for unity of purpose. It addresses the environment of polarisation. But it also calls for courage and truth, which is the opposite of fear and it calls for faith and tolerance, which is the opposite of mistrust. For this reason we think this is an environment in which our faith resources are helpful in confronting.
Q: Do you have access to, and the ear of the most important political offices? How has this access or lack thereof, affected your work?
A: I think we have important political offices but we also know that the access we have is not exclusive; there are other interests that have access to the same offices and who sometime misrepresent and distort what we will be saying. What we have learnt in the last three years of our engagement with political actors has been that they have a lot of suspicion and there are people who wake up everyday to fan that suspicion and fear so that (authorities) are unable to completely trust what is put on the table. They are always being told that whenever there is something offered on the table, there could be hidden agendas and therefore they are always not trusting of what is being presented to them and I think this is something that we are learning to deal with.
Q: Is Zimbabwe ready for an organic “Third Way” movement and what would this constitute?
A: I think the whole idea of “Third Way” thinking is something that need to be developed because in a binary arrangement that we have that is dominated by MDC and Zanu-PF, it is almost impossible to have independent thinking outside this black and white category. I think it is ripe now that Zimbabwe could start to think that it is possible not to be confirmed to the exclusive hegemony of this binary thinking.
For many people this impossible to imagine because they have been so much cultured in this way of thinking that things are always black and white and they cannot see the possibilities of shades of grey but I think as we move along as a nation we need to find voices that are progressive in both the MDC and Zanu PF and in broader society to start to think of ways of thinking that transcend the binary and exclusive categories that two-way thinking has done on the national psyche. There are three ways in which we can imagine solutions to the national challenges. The first way is that, ‘It’s my way’: this is dominant currently and this is why we can see excessive political competition as the.basis of re-imagining the future.
The other way, which is the second way which says, ‘It’s your way’: this is when people have succumbed and given up and say, the situation cannot be changed, let’s allow them to run and when they fail maybe we are going to find another possibility. However, what we talk about the Third Way, we are talking about how do we build something completely new together and this way of thinking is a long a way to go but we think the environment is ripe. We think this way is necessary in Zimbabwe because we do not always have to think in terms of the binary opposites of the existing political hegemony. We hope this will emerge as Zimbabweans start to coalesce around ideas not personalities; and around issues and not the political parties. This is something the nation should embrace so that we can find ways to.work together.
Q: It would seem that as the Church you are also divided and now we see a lot of “umbrella” organisations. Does this not kill such initiatives as you have been working hard to push over the years?
A: I don’t think so. I think a number of these so-called umbrella bodies that come one day and are dead the following day are anything new and we think that what distinguishes true Church from false church is that the false church is not independent of political manipulation and domination. What we seek to do to make sure that churches continue to offer the voice of reason and unity without being aligned to any political party – that independence and impartiality but not neutrality to justice questions, to unity questions, to economic inclusion. No. Independence and impartiality is what distinguishes the true Church from the false church.
Q: Lastly, the idea of national dialogue has also become a diplomatic item as we have seen the international community urging pursuit of the same among the country’s political players. However, there seems to be an impasse as to whether that dialogue is pursued within or outside POLAD. How can this impasse be resolved?
A: I think there are multiple dialogue streams and these can be pursued at different levels. The grassroots national dialogue, or the grassroots at local level that seeks to build consensus among citizens on what is the national question and how can it be resolved and the dialogue that seems to awaken active citizenship; critical self-awareness; seeks to organise citizens – this one doesn’t need POLAD or political actors. It can work through different institutions be they community based actions or churches or civil society organisations; and so forth. These dialogues can happen at local level without being confined to one particular structure.
There is the second-level dialogue that must happen at organised society, professional bodies, civil society organisations where you are trying to bring your thought leaders to contribute to agenda setting so that they align their thinking and converge on common issues and articulating these issues in a way that can be generally be acceptable across the different interest groups. This kind of dialogue doesn’t need to be confined to any particular structure.
The good thing is that right now we can see, with the establishment of the National Convergence Platform, that this sector of society can actually start these dialogues and with time you can have different actors also being part of this platform. The dialogue at political and policy levels will need to make sure that all key stakeholders are participating.
This would include members of the opposition in all its fullness, not only some members of the opposition. In other words the creation of a platform is not a problem in itself. What is required is that this platform should be a platform in which all political actors can identify with. If you establish a political dialogue platform which others don’t identify with, you must go back to the drawing board and say, how do I make sure everyone participates? – Review & Mail