Lessons from Lancaster House conference


By Alex Tawanda Magaisa

IN dealing with the present crisis in Zimbabwe it may be useful to draw lessons from precedents in the country’s history. The Lancaster House constitutional confe

rence in 1979 followed a bitter armed struggle between black nationalists and the Smith regime.


Without underestimating the magnitude of the victory for those that had fought against colonialism, the harsh reality is that the end product was born of the politics of compromise.


The interests of the minority white population were protected by the constitution, the interests of the majority blacks to secure civil and political rights were also protected.


The protagonists may be different, but it is interesting that some of the major issues that confronted the political players then resonate in present day politics. How did they deal with that bitter antagonism? How was it possible, after years of bloodshed and deep-rooted animosity, to reach a settlement?


When they converged at Lancaster House for the constitutional conference, various bitterly opposed parties were at play. They were however able to agree on a way forward, albeit not before some jostling and confrontations. Today, while we have a multitude of parties, there are two major influences on the political landscape – Zanu PF and the MDC.

While there is bitter antagonism, it is not impossible to bring these two and other smaller cousins to the table for talks to map a future for the country. One option is to pursue a scorched earth policy to cause a total meltdown hoping that that will force the regime out. The other is to engage and create conditions necessary for the restoration of democracy without causing further damage to an already depleted country.


Talks permit avenues to bring about a more peaceful transition compared to the destruction that violent means entail. We know of physical violence because we see it every day but sometimes we fail to appreciate the latent violence that an impasse can bring out. The latent violence is in the form of economic decline, infrastructural deterioration and disease, and the decline of morals and values that come with poverty.


A platform for talks can create conditions to remove the impasse and allow people to look to the future. It minimises the damage that would otherwise persist. As Lord Carrington aptly put it at the Lancaster House Conference, “there was (in 1979) also a widespread feeling that continuation or intensification of the war was not in the best interests of any of the parties to the dispute, nor of the people of (Zimbabwe) as a whole”. This observation applies in our current situation.


At the time, the British government took the responsibility of convening the conference as the colonial authority with a constitutional mandate to decolonise its former dependent territories. Today Britain lacks that authority and may not be in a position to convene a similar conference. Nonetheless, it is necessary that there be a third party that takes up an active role in bringing the opposing parties together.


We may not have a military confrontation of similar proportions but the reality is that the bitter antagonism born of the past few years of political jousting makes it practically difficult for the opposing forces in Zimbabwe to convene anything on their own. A third party is needed and that is where African leaders can play a role. President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, for reasons of proximity, shared circumstances and influence, is probably best placed to initiate the process. Indeed, he and others have tried in the past few months to persuade the parties to talk but a more proactive stance is needed.


The purpose of the talks at Lancaster House was to open up the proper avenue to grant legal independence to Zimbabwe. To do that constitutional arrangements had to be decided and put in place. It was stated that “if that (the independence constitution) could be achieved it will be necessary to decide the arrangements to give effect to that agreement”. The idea was that it was easier to deal with the transitional arrangements once the end product had been constructed. This is a necessary lesson in the current political climate. Zimbabweans must have focus on what their end product is. The parties must look at the conditions being advanced and ask whether or not accepting them would change the path towards a more pragmatic solution. That way, parties can limit points of disagreement that can easily derail a positive process.


Joshua Nkomo, representing thePatriotic Front in 1979, stated the position of the nationalists and indicated that the “real issues which should be brought before the conference (must be) solved”. Those issues can be solved when people get together and place them on the table. Debating the issues in the press hardly solves anything as political leaders begin to respond to speculation and inflammatory statements made through journalists.


That is not to say that the press has no role, but the talks must be conducted at an appropriate forum where the leaders will mix and cut through the labyrinth that separates them.


The main claim at Lancaster House was independence from colonialism. The main claim today is a democratic government elected by the people in a free and fair atmosphere. Even at that time Nkomo stated that “the basic objective of the Patriotic Front (is) to ensure that government of a genuine free Zimbabwe is based upon free and fair elections”. This objective can be achieved through a forum that will set the agenda for the overhaul of the constitutional system and provide fair ground for elections properly observed and supervised as agreed by all parties. In this scenario, the African brothers can play the role that Britain played in 1979 by bringing the opposing parties together whether in Harare, Pretoria or Abuja. There are many civil society organisations that have been working on these issues already and all that is required is some measure of humility and placing the interests of the people at the forefront.


At Lancaster House the price of failure was “prolonged bloodshed and further destruction of the life of whole communities”. That still applies today. What Zimbabwe needs is not just power by one or other party, but conditions that nurture democracy and these can be born of a properly managed process. As Carrington instructively stated: “It is illusory to think that any settlement can fully satisfy the requirements of either side. An agreement can only be reached if there is a willingness to compromise.”


To the extent that the crisis in Zimbabwe has not deteriorated to armed conflict, Zimbabwe presents a chance for Africa to take a stand. It is an opportunity to lay the foundation for conflict prevention rather than conflict resolution.


* Alex Tawanda Magaisa is a Zimbabwean lawyer currently based at the University of Warwick, UK.