National dialogue, national political dialogue or high-level political negotiations?

PART I of this essay provided a short analysis of the sibaya announcement and the subsequent agreement between President Ramaphosa and King Mswati III “that the Kingdom of Eswatini will embark on a process that will work towards the establishment of a national dialogue forum.” 

As mentioned in PART I, the recent political developments have been in everyone’s lips but there has been no further information about the the announcement and the agreement. It is a ‘Known Unknowns’ situation. People know there has been an announcement and agreement, but they don’t know the form or shape the national dialogue will take. Its meaning has not been explained to the public.

Most importantly, it is not clear if SADC and King Mswati considered other options that could be more relevant to the political context in Swaziland than what has been agreed. In PART I of this essay, I also emphasised the role of information sharing and transparency in developing a deeper understanding of these issues. 

Greater access to this information will allow the people of Swaziland to relocate from the ‘Known Unknowns’ to the ‘Known Knowns’ zone. That is, awareness and understanding of things that are happening in our surrounding. Someone asked me how we can defeat the regime with no resources. My response was that we can be best prepared if we know the things we must do to defeat the enemy rather than the things we know but do not yet understand (‘Known Unknowns).

Since the public announcement and the release of the two SADC reports regarding the proposed national dialogue, I have closely monitored public response to the proposed event. I have taken samples of public narratives, mostly from liberation organisations, to get a deeper understanding of public opinion and knowledge the agreement.

I am mostly interested in the narratives used in official and informal discussions to create a general picture of the conversation about the dialogue. According to my analysis, there seem to be a lack of clarity of what dialogue means. Seasoned political activists and civil society leaders use the terms “dialogue” and “negotiations” interchangeably as if they mean the same thing. This is the subject I want to address in this essay, the conceptual differences between dialogue and negotiations.

I will approach the former from two distinct poles, broad-based national dialogue and dialogue targeted at specific issues of national interest. In the context of the current situation in Swaziland, I will call the former “national dialogue” and the latter “national political dialogue”.

The SADC/Swaziland agreement refers to national dialogue, not national political dialogue. My interest is in understanding the political sphere in which dialogue and negotiation processes occur, and how they are understood and manipulated by political actors.

In the previous essay, I described “dialogue” as a conversation or discussion between two or more parties regarding issues of mutual concern. The term originates from the Greek language dialogos or conversation and has been widely used in theatre, politics, arts, economics and other social interactions. Conversations can be structured, semi-structured or unstructured depending on the issue(s) and methods used to facilitate the exchange of ideas. 

For example, a conversation (dialogue) between a butcher and a customer is an unstructured event aimed at generating deeper understanding of the customer’s requirement and the product provided by the butcher. A structured or official dialogue is different from an unstructured or casual conversation. It requires methodical approach to the conversation, including perimeters, goals, rules, time, place and outcomes. 

To be effective, an official dialogue must focus on well-defined issues. Whereas the Sibaya announcement and the SADC/Swaziland agreement were influenced by the June/July uprising and the desire for peace, the former does not meet the condition for a structured, semi-structured or unstructured dialogue. The latter, by its appearance has an element of structure. 

It refers to “national dialogue” and an agreement to draft terms of reference (perimeters and rules) “which will specify processes for the forum as well as the composition of the forum” (SADC, 2 December 2021). But what is national dialogue? How is it different from national political dialogue or political negotiations? The concept is not defined in the SADC reports. 

Pro-democracy organisations have not provided their interpretation of the concept either. For example, on 3-5 December 2021, the Swaziland Multi-Stakeholder Forum and the Political Party Assembly met in South Africa to discuss the SADC sponsored terms of reference, but failed to provide direction on the SADC sponsored national dialogue in their declaration. This was a missed opportunity to demonstrate the capacity of the liberation movement to lead the process.

In this paper I want to draw readers’ attention to the differences between “national dialogue”, “national political dialogue” and “political negotiations” in the hope that it will reshape the current discussion. More broadly, to encourage the people of Swaziland to reimagine the new political phase and its potential or limitations to bring about the change we want. 

These concepts are different and can take different shapes. Most importantly, they can produce different outcomes. It is extremely important that the pro-democracy community study these concepts very carefully and assess their application and suitability to the political conditions in Swaziland.

In a nutshell, it is critical that we select the correct approach with the greatest potential to deliver the outcomes we are seeking. Our understanding of these concepts, their application and the outcomes they are likely to produce will define our success. History will judge us harshly if we do not learn from our past mistakes and select the wrong model of political engagement.

Winston Churchill once said, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. It is often said that history is a great teacher to those who read it, not to those who ignore it. We can ignore history and past mistakes to our peril.

The starting point for us is learning from history by investing time and effort in understanding what has been proposed and opening our eyes to other possibilities.

Firstly, let us unpack the concept of (a) “national dialogue”. This concept has been used in Swaziland and other contexts interchangeably with the other two concepts but, as discussed earlier, it is conceptually different. 

Its application is much broader and less ambitious than other processes that can be applied in a “national political dialogue” or “political negotiations” contexts.

National dialogues are designed to generate deeper understanding of matters of public concern and assist countries in developing appropriate policies or frameworks for resolving social problems. They have been used in many countries to resolve disputes and build pathways for social, political and economic reforms within the confines of the existing political machinery. 

For example, national dialogues on truth, justice and reconciliation were held in South Africa, Sierra Leone and Kenya to gain deeper understanding of what occurred during violent political conflicts.

The goal was to reset these countries and put them on a healing path, not to introduce fundamental structural change to the political system. Depending on the subject matter, countries use a combination of tools to facilitate national dialogues, including roundtable discussions, surveys, open public consultations, community clinics and workshops. The advantage of national dialogues is their intention to broaden participation to political and civic society groups.

While national dialogues have been used to inform change and resolve disputes, they are limited in what they can achieve. They can be unwieldly and protracted with no end in sight, especially if they are not well structured and managed. Of significant note, is the limitation of national dialogues to make binding agreements. To put it in other way, outputs of national dialogues are not always tangible. In most cases, the decision to implement national dialogue recommendations or outputs rests with the incumbent government.

In the Swaziland context, King Mswati will reign supreme. Moreover, national dialogues have limited jurisdiction because they are usually conducted within the confines and detects of the existing political system. This is clearly articulated in the SADC/Swaziland agreement which imposes jurisdictional limitation to the proposed national dialogue.

According to agreement, “the process towards the national dialogue will take into account and incorporate structures and processes enshrined in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Eswatini (sic), including the role of the Parliament of the Kingdom, and the Sibaya convened by His Majesty King Mswati III” (SADC, 2 December 2021). This is of great concern given the king’s constitutional powers over the three arms of government. By limiting the process to constitutional structures, the agreement effectively excludes political parties from the process because they are not recognised in the 2005 Constitution.

These are complex issues which will have to be resolved before the dialogue begins. For example, amendment to the Constitution and other laws that imposes restrictions on political party participation such as the Suppression of Terrorism Act 2008.

It is for these reasons that a national dialogue model is not the appropriate vehicle for achieving significant political reforms or regime change in Swaziland. The limitations of this model can deliver substantial political dividends to King Mswati. Like the 2005 Constitution, a national dialogue is likely to give renewed legitimacy to King Mswati and monarchy institutions. It could land the pro-democracy movement in a political quagmire and meaningless talks with the regime. 

Readers will recall that the SADC/Swaziland agreement is about establishing a national dialogue, not a national political dialogue or political negotiations. Clearly, this model was preferred by King Mswati to obfuscate the situation and lure the public into believing that his government is committed to resolving the political crisis. From the beginning, I questioned the appropriateness of this model and its capacity to achieve significant political change in Swaziland. 

The first question I asked was why the word “political” is excluded from the agreement? If the purpose of the process is to resolve the current political crisis, why not call it “national political dialogue”?

Secondly, I now turn to the concept of “national political dialogue”. This concept can be understood in the same way as “national dialogue”, a tool to facilitate the exchange of ideas about issues of public concern. However, it is different from “national dialogue” in the sense that its scope is limited to understanding and resolving political issues. National political dialogues are most relevant in resolving conflicts between the incumbent government and the public represented by political and civic society organisations. 

They are also designed to resolve inefficiencies in political institutions and issues of public trust in government. For example, they have been used in many countries to achieve parliamentary, electoral and constitutional reforms. National political dialogue processes are more structured and most likely to achieve fundamental political reforms than national dialogues. Depending on the issue and political context, they may differ in design, size, level of inclusiveness, and influence.

Like national dialogues, national political dialogues have limited capacity to facilitate regime change because they are conducted within the confines of the existing political machinery, and maybe limited to a single issue rather than the broader political system. For example, a national political dialogue on electoral reforms will be limited to achieving changes in the electoral structure, not the entire political system. 

Notwithstanding these limitations, national political dialogues can be an important stepping stone towards significant changes to a political system. For example, Swaziland may elect to hold a national political dialogue on transition to democratic governance to gather public views on this issue before proceeding to high-level political negotiations.

Thirdly, the “high-level political negotiations” model is by far the most effective non-violent tool for driving significant and long-term change. It is highly structured with clearly defined rules, perimeters, goals, timeframes, and criteria for participation. What distinguishes this model from the other two models is its focus on achieving serious changes to a political system. Another key feature of high-level political negotiations is the capacity to make agreements that are binding to all parties. 

High-level political negotiations are commonly viewed as a mechanism for negotiating a new social contract and rebuilding a new nation state. They are not so much concerned about reforms but reorganisation of society and its key institutions. To achieve this goal, high-level-political negotiations must be carefully prepared and designed with a strong mandate, clearly defined goals, inclusive and participatory processes that are jointly owned by all parties. 

This is the model that was applied in South Africa to transition the country from apartheid to an inclusive democratic system of governance. It allowed South Africa to craft and implement a comprehensive roadmap for political change.

While high-level political negotiations incorporate elements of dialogue, they involve very complex processes, including the capacity of parties to find common ground or zone of possible agreement on specific subjects. Participation in high-level political negotiations is limited to selected government officials and representatives of political parties or organisations.

In most cases, participation is regulated by a set of selection criteria developed and agreed by all parties. Participation selection criteria should be approached with a high degree of caution because they can create a sense of exclusion, especially for small and less established organisations.

Although high-level political negotiations will be more effective in achieving fundamental pollical change in Swaziland, they are limited to what they can achieve. They can facilitate regime change but not total social transformation. This is particularly relevant in a country like Swaziland where the political system is intertwined with a cultural symbol, the monarchy. It is worth noting that negotiation is not a zero-sum game, there are no losers or winners. 

It is therefore highly likely that negotiations outcomes in Swaziland will include the retention of the monarchy, and hopefully with significantly reduced political power. The people of Swaziland will need to decide on the model that has the greatest potential to deliver the country they want to live in. Knowledge of these models and their potentials and limitations is critical to the choices we must make about the future of this country.

In this essay, I have expressed my preference for high-level political negotiations model with full knowledge of its potential and limitations. Whatever choice we make, dialogue or negotiations, we will have to be prepared to dine with the devil.

That is, discuss and negotiate a role for the monarchy in a new political dispensation. Alternatively, we may decide to consider the fourth factor which has not be argued in this essay, the total overthrow of the monarch. This will give Swaziland the opportunity to start afresh on a clean slate.

Dr Jabulane Matsebula is a PUDEMO member based in Australia. He writes in his own personal capacity.