eSwathini King Mswati III. Photo: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP

On a recent working visit to the kingdom of eSwatini, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, as chairperson of the Southern African Development Community, met King Mswati III. Ramaphosa’s visit follows a recent visit by SADC special envoys that took place after deadly protests and a clampdown by the kingdom’s security forces.

Ramaphosa and the king held discussions on several issues relating to the political and security situation in the kingdom, according to a press release. A key takeaway from the deliberations was a resolution that the kingdom “will embark on a process that will work towards the establishment of a national dialogue forum”.

To assist with the facilitation of a national dialogue forum, Ramaphosa and Mswati agreed that the SADC secretariat will, in collaboration with the government, begin the process of drafting the terms of reference for the national dialogue forum. This process is important as it will clarify issues such as:

  • The composition of the forum;
  • Incorporating structures and processes enshrined in the Constitution;
  • The role of the parliament;
  • Understanding the role of the Sibaya — a traditional gathering called by the king to consult his subjects — to be used as the format for the national dialogue forum; and
  • Confirmation of time lines and milestones.

National dialogues can be defined as “nationally owned political processes aimed at generating consensus among a broad range of national stakeholders in times of deep political crisis, in post-war situations or during far-reaching political transitions”. They may also be defined as broad-based, inclusive and participatory negotiation platforms involving all sectors of society brought together to strengthen the social contract between citizens and the state.

In recent years, we have witnessed several attempts to conduct national dialogues as critical tools in the prevention of conflict and for managing political crises and transitions in the SADC region. Although there may be wide ranging inclusive buy-in among the different stakeholders, a limitation regarding conceptual clarity persists, limiting the likely success of the process. Agreeing on the objectives of a national dialogue may seem like a straightforward exercise but, if the foundation is not correctly laid, fissures may appear to the detriment of the process.

According to the National Dialogue Handbook: A Guide for Practitioners, the objectives of national dialogues tend to be context dependent: “They may focus on a more narrow set of specific or substantive objectives (such as security arrangements, constitutional amendments, truth commissions, et cetera), or on broad-based change processes, which may entail (re)building a (new) political system and developing a (new) social contract.”

It is for the emaSwati to decide and agree on the objective before the process commences. If this part of the process is not carefully considered it may result in bouts of mistrust, fear, negative agenda setting and so forth. The handbook distinguishes between two main types of national dialogue, identified according to the function they seek to fulfil:

National dialogues as mechanisms for crisis prevention and management 

  • A shorter-term endeavour, undertaken strategically to resolve or prevent the outbreak of armed violence.
  • Key aims: breaking political deadlocks and re-establishing minimal political consensus, while further reform and steps toward change can be negotiated.
  • Key characteristics: these tend to be smaller in size and shorter in duration with more limited mandates. They are often easier to manage due to the restricted number of actors who may be involved. They may reflect a less inclusive structure, whereby broad-based societal buy-in for desired changes can be difficult to generate.

National dialogues as mechanisms for fundamental change 

  • Efforts with a longer-term trajectory, envisioned to redefine state-society relations, or establish a new “social contract”.
  • Key aims: far-reaching institutional and constitutional changes.
  • Key characteristics: broad mandate and often large. Seeking to include large strata of society and generate widespread support. They are confronted with the challenges of managing large-scale processes.

In the case of eSwatini, it may be better suited to adopt a more hybrid model incorporating elements from both approaches as it may lead to a longer sustained political solution.

As stated, the political context in which the implementation of a national dialogue takes place has a direct effect on the success of the process. Huma Haider an independent research consultant lists the following as factors to be considered:

  • Political will: The greater the level of political will and elite agreement on the way forward, the greater the likelihood of successful outcomes and implementation.
  • Links to other transitional processes: National dialogues need to be embedded in larger change processes to promote real structural change. If disconnected to other political processes, such as constitution-making, they are likely to be counter-productive.
  • Common ground: The absence of diametrically opposed political camps can make it more likely to arrive at a common view or shared objectives in dialogue, allowing for the process to move forward. In contrast, drastically different views can exacerbate distrust and stall the process.
  • Public buy-in: Public support or lack thereof can enable or constrain progress in the national dialogue process. The degree of buy-in is influenced by the availability of public information, good communication, and media engagement — all of which affect the level of transparency and understanding of the process.
  • Learning from experience: National dialogues have benefited from dialogue expertise and learning from past national dialogues.
  • The role of external actors and national ownership: Support (such as political, financial and technical) or resistance of external actors can influence the degree of success of national dialogues. It is important to strike a balance between external support and national ownership. The latter can increase the likelihood of public buy-in, perceptions of legitimacy — and chances of implementation.

Haider also states that in conjunction with political context factors, design or process factors are also important, as these play a role in influencing the likelihood of reaching sustainable agreements. Key process factors include:

  • The degree of inclusion and participation: Most of the literature on this subject emphasises that the transformative potential of national dialogues can only be realised if they are genuinely inclusive of society. To be truly inclusive, it is necessary to help balance power asymmetries and ensure actual decision-making power. Highly inclusive and participatory national dialogues may render discussions unwieldy, however, and make it difficult to resolve key political questions. The success of national dialogues can depend in large part on finding the right equilibrium between efficiency and inclusiveness.
  • Representation and selection criteria: Established selection criteria and procedures for participants in national dialogues can support or hinder the broad representation of different social and political groups. Transparency in the criteria is significantly important.
  • Objective and scope-setting: It is important to avoid overburdening mandate; and agendas. It can be challenging to balance the breadth of the mandate, efficiency, and independence. While a narrower mandate can be more manageable and efficient, it can limit the room for change and may contribute to the persistence of an elite-led process. Clarity and relevance to local populations are key characteristics to adopt in deriving a suitable mandate and agenda. Addressing development issues and peace dividends at the outset can be important to the success of national dialogues.
  • Institutional framework and support structures: A comprehensive support structure of important actors close to competing parties can help participants to be prepared (with the necessary expertise and tools), to compromise and to build coalitions, allowing them time to agree on common positions. Such structures do not, however, necessarily improve the quality of participation or guarantee implementation.
  • Role of authority figures: A credible, broadly accepted, independent, respected, and charismatic convenor, mediator or facilitator can significantly affect the strength of the national dialogue, indicating seriousness and trust in the process.
  • Decision-making procedures: These can enable or constrain the ability of national dialogues to reach an agreement and implement it. Although consensus can help expand agendas and include often excluded voices, an inability to reach consensus can benefit the more established forces, as the absence of movement can mean preserving the status quo. Consensus-based decision-making needs to be complemented by other pragmatic mechanisms where deadlocks can be broken, such as the use of working groups.
  • Confidence-building measures: National dialogues must be accompanied by a series of steps to attenuate tensions, to establish a level of “working trust” to be part of a meaningful dialogue. Trust-building is important throughout all phases to ensure that agreements are also implemented.
  • Provision for implementation: It is necessary to ensure that sufficient funds for implementation, expertise and accountability mechanisms are in place, such that key actors may feel bound by what has been agreed. Transitional bodies and/or new institutions are often set up to implement the outcomes. Implementation can be tough if participants have made unrealistic decisions, if political will is absent, or if external actors fail to provide necessary support.

Even with all the above factors in place, the process may still fail if the commitment levels from state and non-state actors are uncertain. After some initial apprehension both state and non-state actors appear open to adopting a national dialogue forum which bodes well for the process. But, if eSwatini is to succeed, it may require certain difficult conditions to be agreed upon before the process commences. Agreeing to the terms of reference is critical. If not properly managed, it may be a stumbling block too heavy to move across the start line. Otherwise, there is a possibility the whole process may end up being merely a case of going through the motions without a chance of any real reforms being reached.

In short, if the national dialogue process is to succeed the following foundation strengthening factors must be applied:

  • If there is no trust in the stakeholders the process will fail before it starts.
  • A neutral convenor must be accepted by all parties;
  • The process must be insulated from undue political or external influence;
  • Insisting on transparency at all levels of the process; and
  • Outcomes from the process must be acted on and directed to their relevant streams – policy, legislation, or strategy.

Both Ramaphosa and Mswati are united in calling on all stakeholders to cooperate in ending the violence and maintaining peace in the country as efforts to commence work on the national dialogue forum proceeds.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian.

Craig Moffat, PhD is the Head of Programme: Governance Delivery and Impact for Good Governance Africa. He has more than 17 years of practical experience working for government institutions and multilateral organisations. He was previously employed by the South African Foreign Service, where he worked extensively at identifying and analysing security threats towards South Africa as well as the southern Africa region. Previously, he was the political advisor for the Pretoria Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Stellenbosch University.