President Emmerson Mnangagwa is seeking to co-opt sections of civil society organisations, the church, business and some political parties in a mollifying move meant to silence growing dissent.
Government officials told the Zimbabwe Independent that the strategy involves co-opting political parties under the guise of national dialogue, while civil society and churches will be pacified under the engagement drive.
Business leaders, officials said, have been largely co-opted through the Presidential Advisory Council (Pac). Officials say Mnangagwa's strategy came after the realisation that his administration's over-reliance on brute force is unsustainable. During its short eight-month life, Mnangagwa's government has twice unleashed the military on civilians, resulting in several deaths. The first incident occurred on August 1 2018 when the army opened fire on fleeing protesters in central Harare, killing six.
This was followed by even deadlier incidents which took place between January 14-17 this year when the army and police killed 17 people during demonstrations over fuel price increases.
The incidents saw Mnangagwa's popularity significantly waning. This has been worsened by the government's failure to address the country's mounting economic challenges. But since then, the 76-year-old, who rose to power in a military coup which toppled former president Robert Mugabe in November 2017, has been on a charm offensive. The co-option of all dissenting voices is viewed as a move to maintain hegemony over sections of society with the ability to influence public opinion.
In his latest move, Mnangagwa resourcefully extended an olive branch to the Matabeleland civil society which has over the years taken him to task over the 1980s Gukurahundi atrocities.
Mnangagwa's Bulawayo visit three weeks ago has left the city's civil society sharply divided with some of his toughest critics -- like Women of Zimbabwe Alliance (Woza) founder Jennifer Williams -- waxing lyrical about the President. Williams showered praises on Mnangagwa after the meeting, describing him as a considerate and listening leader.
Williams, however, told the Zimbabwe Independent her stance had not changed.
"My stance has not changed and it would be foolhardy in the extreme for anyone to think that use of dialogue and engagement as a strategy means an end to all other strategies. Nothing has changed in our lives, we are still in crisis. What has changed and is positive and must be acknowledged as such is that there is now recognition that all parties, no matter how diverse in opinion and view, have a role to play in addressing the crisis," Williams said. "It is a credit to Matabeleland Collective and the President that opposing views could be respectfully exchanged for the betterment of our nation. Myself and Woza, as part of the Matabeleland Collective, will continue to hold him accountable as the head of state and especially the promises he so openly committed to in the meeting on 21 March 2019."
Habakkuk Trust chief executive Dumisani Nkomo, who attended Mnangagwa's Bulawayo meeting, said: "National dialogue is critical as it is the highest form of political maturity. This is what we need as a country. We need to solve the economic crisis, the political questions of the day and the collective vision of the nation. Dialogue needs to be inclusive and issue-focussed.
"We stand for the truth whatever happens and our meeting the President is the highest form of national advocacy we can do to articulate the issues affecting the common man and, in this case, Matabeleland. Engagement is the most sophisticated form of advocacy and epitomises statecraft and craft competence in championing causes."
Political analyst Pedzisai Ruhanya said: "Mnangagwa is co-opting fringe opposition parties. He is not dealing with the real political parties and civic groups. Those that are being co-opted are surrogates. So Mnangagwa is wasting his time.
"He needs to address the political decomposition of the state. He needs to identify serious actors in the state who have the capacity to solve the current crisis, political parties that can be listened to. It doesn't make any sense to engage politicians like Bryn Mteki. If he wants to redeem the state, he needs to engage the MDC led by Nelson Chamisa on the basis of his ability to influence international relations. Zimbabwe is a two-party state. So he must not waste his time engaging insignificant losers."
Civil society commentator Takura Zhangazha said while the initial dialogue may be well-intended, its success was dependent on how it is structured to be carried forward beyond the meeting's occurrence as an event.
"Charming Matabeleland is always important for any national political leader all the time. ED (Mnangagwa), however, probably wants to attempt to shake off the Gukurahundi tag but, more significantly, wants to make political support inroads for Zanu PF in opposition strongholds in the province, especially Bulawayo. I wouldn't call the meeting co-option, but an initial engagement. We will wait and see what it becomes on the basis of their next steps," he said.
Activist George Mkhwanazi, who has been involved with different pressure groups activities in the region, said the Matabeleland Collective convened by Pastor Trevor Masuku is a puppet outfit of the state pushing a sinister hegemonic agenda.
"The Matabeleland Collective and their sellout agenda are an insult to Bekithemba Sibindi, Mthandazo Ndema Ngwenya, Qhubekani Dube and Ndabezinhle Edwin Mkhwanazi's revolutionary memories," Mkhwanazi said. "These organisations are a bunch of clueless opportunists who have no idea of the amount of damage they are inflicting on the Matabeleland struggle by helping Mnangangwa cleanse himself from the Gukurahundi stigma.
They are dispossessing Matabele nationalist agitators of their vital ammunition against Zanu PF hegemony which could have resulted in ultimate freedom and independence. They are doing this in exchange for trivial and transient gratification."