One of the world’s last dictators, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is seen by the Europe and America as a global pariah. But inside the country, his former foes are now flocking to his side. Education Minister David Coltart, a longtime opponent and human rights activist, tells Leo Cendrowicz that as Mugabe wanes, it no longer makes sense to isolate Zimbabwe.
David Coltart knows what is said about him. He is seen as a collaborator, a dupe, and a sucker. He was turned, bamboozled. He betrayed his principles and his people when he joined the government of Zimbabwe’s eternal dictator, Robert Mugabe. “I’ve been accused of all sorts of things: that I’ve been charmed by Mugabe, that I’ve lost it,” he says.
But as Zimbabwe’s Minister for Education, Sport, Arts and Culture for the past three years, he still believes he is doing the right thing. And he has, after all, a long record of moral integrity and conscientious objection. Coltart, 54, first set up a legal aid clinic in Bulawayo in 1983, and as a lawyer handed human rights cases relating to the Gukurahundi genocide in the 1980s, and the people who the regime had ‘disappeared.’ He was first elected to parliament for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party in 2000, and has regularly faced harassment and intimidation. Worth adding that Coltart is white, and given Zimbabwe’s tortured racial history and its recent resettlement programme, his involvement in modern day politics is all the more striking.
Coltart is not alone amongst Mugabe’s foes in joining a power-sharing coalition with the President’s Zanu PF party. Notably, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has been Prime Minister since 2009, despite being arrested and beaten by Mugabe loyalists. Coltart is now going further. Having once led the calls for global sanctions against Mugabe’s regime, he is now travelling the world to seek their rollback. Why?
Coltart takes a deep breath before explaining himself. He knows how perverse it sometimes feels to be sleeping with someone globally seen as odious, as Mugabe is, and he has only slightly tempered his language about his president since joining the government. “Mugabe has done some pretty horrendous things, including to me personally,” he says. “My understanding of his culpability has not changed. But if we are to take the country forward, prevent hundreds of thousands of people leaving or dying, we need to work with him. I understand your skepticism. But there is no viable alternative.”
For more than a decade, the West has issued howls of outrage at Mugabe’s flagrant disregard for basic principles of democracy and human rights. But there is not a snowball’s chance in Harare of any Libyan-style intervention in Zimbabwe. “Mugabe is not just going to hand over power,” Coltart says. What opponents can do, he argues, is plan for the post-Mugabe era. With the old tyrant now aged 88, this could begin soon.
Coltart draws in historical comparisons to show why it might prove worthwhile to hold his nose and shake the hands of his former nemesis. An obvious example is South Africa, where Nelson Mandela and the ANC negotiated with the National Party, eventually securing a full and peaceful transfer of power. “It was a painstaking process that lasted four years, but it succeeded,” he says. And he looks further back to the Second World War, to show another unlikely alliance forged for the greater good. “The bottom line is that Churchill and Roosevelt had to negotiate with Stalin to bring a war to an end,” he says. Even today, a similar delicate dance is being conducted with the unpalatable Burmese regime: Washington has re-established ties in step with the generals as they open up the country to limited democracy.
While sanctions once shamed the country, they are now counterproductive, Coltart says. “Sanctions have got beyond their sell by date,” he says. “They have always been more symbolic. The reality is that Zimbabwe had already been suspended from the World Bank because of their arrears. Even if these sanctions are lifted, it won’t change the arrears.” The travel bans on Mugabe and his cronies have also been circumvented; as Coltart notes, Mugabe often comes to New York. “And so much notice was given on the asset freezes that they had time to move them out,” he adds.
The point of the sanctions, Coltart says, was to stigmatize those involved in gross human rights abuses. “It was why I supported them, as they were acting with impunity,” he says. “And if they are lifted, the stigma will not go away. So the sanctions have achieved their purpose.”
Ironically, Coltart says, the sanctions are now serving the hardliners around Mugabe, who use them as an excuse to explain why their policies have created turmoil. “If you remove the sanctions, you remove the excuses,” he says. “It won’t change much on the ground. And it will move the process ahead.”
There is also real change in Zimbabwe, Coltart says, which deserves support. “The international community forgets how bad we were in 2008,” he says. Back then, Zimbabwe was on the brink of implosion with hyperinflation, mass emigration, and a cholera epidemic. Now inflation is down to 4%, the country has reopened hospitals and clinics, beaten the cholera, and brought clean water to people in cities. When Coltart took over as Education Minister, the schooling system was facing total collapse, with just 26 teaching days in 2008, but he has re-established the teaching year.
“The country would have become a failed state like Liberia and Somalia,” he says. “We know there is not going to be a deep rooted change while he is there. But that assumes there has not been any improvement on the ground. By every objective indicator, thing have improved since 2008.”
Even if he does not get a change in policy on sanctions, Coltart hopes he will at least get a change in engagement and support of education. He notes that Germany has put $18 million into Zimbabwe’s education transition fund, Finland $10 million, the UK £38 million, but only $1 million from the US.
Coltart says that it is misleading to see Mugabe as a tinpot tyrant in same vein as Sacha Baron Cohen’s recent movie The Dictator. “It is wrong to compare him to Hilter and Pol Pot,” he says, drawing a psychological picture of the man who led Zimbabwe’s independence movement in the 1970s against the white supremacist rule of its predecessor, Rhodesia. “Although he has been responsible for crimes against humanity, he has not killed millions. He is a very complex character, but wrong to paint him as a doddering old sadist. He is a calculating ideologue, rooted in the battle to defeat Ian Smith and Rhodesia.”
The country is still in a precarious position, and thugs are still in authority, Coltart warns. “I’m not naïve person who thinks leopards can change their spots,” he says. For example, he does not expect the next parliamentary and presidential elections, due next year, to be peaceful, free, and fair. He also notes that earlier this year, one of his closest friends, human rights activist Paul Chizuze, disappeared without trace. More recently, the nuts on Coltart’s car wheels were loosened, and the wheel came off. “It could well have been sabotage,” he says. “I come into this debate with the clear understanding that there are still dark forces utterly determined to subvert the process, and use the same tactics they have used for 30 years. But by disengaging, it only benefits the hardliners.”
As for Mugabe, “He is 88 years old, he is old and tiring.” But, Coltart notes, whether we like him or not, he is still revered by about a third of Zimbabweans. “In Africa, he remains a symbol of overthrowing white rule. We have to grasp the harsh practical reality. We have to accept we need him,” he says.