ZIMBABWE is reeling under unrelenting economic and political crises. Following decades of economic mismanagement and leadership failure under the late former President Robert Mugabe, his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, has overseen further economic decay, failing to save the once promising country from the rut. The vicious cycle of economic problems has kept Zimbabwe in the wilderness, 40 years after Independence. Opposition MDC Alliance treasurer-general David Coltart (DC) has witnessed the country move from the oppressive colonial system to Independence in 1980 as well as the transformation from the bread-basket of Southern Africa to a basket case. In this first of a two-part series, Coltart, a lawyer by profession was Education minister between 2009 and 2013 speaks, to The NewsHawks reporter Nyasha Chingono (NC) on the country’s political and economic crisis. Below are excerpts of the interview:
NC: You wrote about tyranny in your book, The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe, looking at Rhodesia and Zimbabwe. How has oppression affected this country?
DC: The historical reality is that the 1950s were a time of tremendous growth in this country: Kariba Dam was built, many schools were built then much of the infrastructure that we see in this country was developed in the 1950s. We have not seen economic development on that level for the last 60 years. As you know, in my book I say that a major turning point was Garfield Todd’s removal from power in February 1958. Although there was some economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s under the Rhodesian Front, it was at a very heavy cost because of the war and the cost of the war, both in material terms and in human terms. It injected poison in our society, which we have never really recovered from.
Since then, the economy has continued on this downhill path and in real terms our GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita has fallen dramatically in the last 60 years. It is all tied to the fact that for over 60 years now, we have experienced tyranny and abuse of human rights. The failure to respect the rule of law has dramatically affected us as a nation economically. But also the human cost has been massive in terms of the poison that it’s injected into our society, the dislocation of families, the high unemployment levels. We can see this direct correlation between tyranny in both Rhodesia and Zimbabwe all these years, and economic collapse.
NC: As one of the people who have fought injustice since 1980, what can you say has been your driving force?
DC: Well, at my core I am a man of faith. I came to know the Lord Jesus in 1981. At university, I came to believe that the God I serve is a God of justice, a God of non-violence. Jesus was a person who advocated non-violence; He advocated care for the disadvantaged and the poor. He advocated for hard work and personal responsibility. That is my primary driving force; my faith. Secondary to that is the fact that I was born and grew up in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is in my blood; I love this country and I love its people with a passion.
I think it is a country with enormous potential. I’m not sure that I would have stayed here had this been Somalia or even Namibia but it is a country with every possible attribute except for democracy.
So coming back to your first question, I believe that there is a direct correlation between long-term sustainable economic development and respect for our democracy and human rights. When there is respect for the rule of law and democracy and human rights in Africa, certainly there is sustainable economic development. My fervent belief is that it is only when you respect the rule of law when you respect people, and when you respect the democratic rule of the people, that our country will prosper financially and economically. So it is that belief in the potential of this country that is my driving force. I believe that when we overcome tyranny, that the true potential of this country can be met and I believe it will boom. I think that this country has the potential to be the jewel of Africa, to be the envy not just of Africa, but of many countries.
NC: When did you begin doing human rights work and how do you feel about the current environment where opposition leaders are perceived as enemies of the state?
DC: I started in the late 1980s at the University of Cape Town. As you know, I studied law there and I got involved in legal aid clinics at the time, it was the height of apartheid, and students were involved in going to the townships, and helping South Africans who are affected by laws. We used cases that had been won in the South African courts by the likes of Arthur Chester Centre, the Legal Resources Centre in South Africa to assist black South Africans remain in Cape Town. The apartheid laws then were such that even if a person worked 11 months of the year at a business in Cape Town, they were forced to go home for one month, every year and then they could never get permanent residence in South Africa. Because they were forced to go back to their homelands, they could never buy property or have any rights to stay in South Africa. That was the beginning of, I suppose, my eyes being open to the terrible injustices that were taking place in South Africa and I was then involved in the Zimbabwe Society that was started after Independence.
It started encouraging students to return to Zimbabwe and it was at that stage that I was actually threatened by the South African regime with deportation because it was the time of destabilisation of neighbouring states and the last thing the apartheid government wanted was to see a successful Zimbabwe. And so my efforts to encourage students to go home were a threat to them. That was the first time that I had contact with Robert Mugabe.
In August 1981, he sent me a personal telegram, encouraging me to continue with that work, so that was the start of my human rights work. But when I came back to the country at the completion of my studies in late 1982, I started practicing law and was drawn into representing victims of the Gukurahundi and some senior politicians from Zapu and Zapu central Committee. In 1986, I set up the first Legal Aid clinic in Bulawayo and that was followed by the setting up of the Legal Project Centre under the Legal Resources Foundation. That drew me more and more into human rights work.
NC: What have been your major successes and disappointments in your quest for a free Zimbabwe?
DC: I think that the major success so far has been having survived 37 years and having taken my law firm through enormous trials; organisations like the MDC as well that have survived. I set up the Legal Resources Foundation, set up a school, Petra College, with others of course, way back in 1986. It is one of the top private schools in the country today. My time as Minister of Education was reasonably successful in stabilising the education sector. I was obviously disappointed not to be able to consolidate that stabilisation and to implement a variety of changes to the education system that I wanted to.
The major disappointment is that 40 years after Independence, arguably, Zimbabwe is more authoritarian than ever. In so many ways we’ve gone backwards and made no progress. That is a huge disappointment and unfinished business in my life.
NC: You have been consistently called a Selous Scout despite you denying it on record. How do you feel about that?
DC: Of course, that is ridiculous and baseless. I have written in detail in my book about the time that I spent as a teenager. I was 17 when I first joined the police and, as you know, every white male was conscripted. We had no choice, you either went to jail or left the country and I didn’t want to do either of those. I was in the police for the whole period of my service. I was never a Selous Scout. The Selous Scouts were part of the Rhodesian army, not the police force and I never had any association with the Selous Scouts nor operated with the Selous Scouts. It is just a ridiculous thing. Anyone who knows me I have always been a skinny skinny fellow. You know, you can see I don’t have a beard, I have never been a major rugby player or anything like that. The Selous Scouts, aside from anything else, attracted huge hulks of men.
But, you know this was started by Jonathan Moyo and he has subsequently confirmed that it was a lie, there is no evidence of that, it’s a total fabrication. It is designed to create an image of me as someone who is a terrorist or someone who shows little regard for human life.
Anyone who knows me understands that I am committed to the principles of non-violence to respecting the Constitution and the rule of law. I am the least likely person to be Selous Scout.
NC: Your son Doug is one of the leading figures at the moment in the fight against human rights abuses. How do you feel about his decision to follow in your footsteps?
DC: I’m very proud of him following in my footsteps. I think that he has shown great courage and great integrity. I have great hope for this coming generation. You know, one of the things I believe is that Zimbabwe is only going to change when my generation actually loses power.
I think that my generation is the generation of war and all of us are affected by the war in different ways. For people like myself, it’s going to take Doug’s generation, I think, to actually transform this nation. Doug has been fortunate, along with the rest of my children, in growing up in a society which didn’t preach white supremacy and which didn’t entrench racial discrimination. As you can see, Doug is so completely integrated into our society, has embraced Zimbabwe, and I think is deeply appreciated for that.
NC: You were not as vocal about the 2017 military coup that deposed Robert Mugabe. Could you tell us why?
DC: I have known Mr. (Emmerson) Mnangagwa for a long, long time. Before I went into government you know, going right the way back to 1997. I had hoped that he had had a Damascus Road experience like Paul and that he changed, but I was very skeptical because I believe I know the nature of the man. I wrote about it, you know, in November 2017, that our optimism was misplaced. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt if you look at my writings. For example, on New Year’s Day in 2018, I said Mnangagwa had an option to be either a Gorbachev or Milosevic. A Gorbachev, you know, someone who has come from an authoritarian past, but someone who has changed and has a vision to democratise a country, or you have a Milosevic who comes from an authoritarian past and never changes. The point I’m making is that although I was deeply skeptical and not optimistic, I wanted to give Mnangagwa a chance. But very soon into his presidency, I could see that his actions just didn’t match his rhetoric and that he was actually just entirely focused on the retention of power by any means.
It is one of those things where you hate being able to say ‘I told you so’, but I think it’s very clear now that the optimism of many was completely misplaced.
NC: Where do you think the Mnangagwa administration—which describes itself as the new dispensation—went wrong?
DC: Well, I didn’t call it a new dispensation because I see nothing new in it. I see it as a very tired continuation of Mugabe’s dispensation. So, I would never call it a new dispensation. I think it went wrong right at the moment of the coup because that was the illegality. There was a coup that took place. As you know, I opposed Mugabe’s rule, but I always believe that Mugabe should be removed in terms of the Constitution. Although there is this argument that he resigned, he resigned clearly with a gun at his head.
History shows us that once the Constitution is breached in such a fundamental way, it becomes very difficult to respect a constitution going forward. It’s a terrible spoiling of a nation’s record and so that was the fundamental problem. That’s where it went wrong. It went wrong right at the very beginning, when they were prepared to use the military to get Mr. Mnangagwa into power, instead of having the courage to stand up within Zanu PF and to get a majority of MPs to impeach Mugabe. Although there was that threat, it came at the back of a coup. So they got off to the wrong start immediately and then that was followed by the appointment of the architects of the coup to his cabinet, including Chiwenga himself, which gave a thin civilian veneer to a military junta.
The next major problem, of course, was that Mnangagwa appointed a thoroughly biased chairperson of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) who was determined to act at the behest of the military and Mnangagwa himself. So that, in turn, resulted in the seriously flawed July election 2018 and it’s gone downhill since then. You know, the deployment of troops in the streets in August 2018, the deployment again of troops in January 2019, the abductions since then of civic activists, the abductions of teachers, the detention of lawyers, the assault of lawyers, the subversion of the judiciary, the cutting off of the internet and, of course, the rampant corruption.
NC: Do you think Mnangagwa’s government is capable of reforming?
DC: No, I don’t. I’m an optimist by nature, but I believe that they are incapable of reforming. They have spoken about reform, but it’s clear that that’s been a tactic of this government to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community. They had every opportunity and so much goodwill was extended to Mnangagwa in the beginning by the British government and others, which I disagreed with. But the fact remains that the British government did try to support them at the beginning as did other governments. He also had enormous support from the African Union and SADC.
They had every opportunity to tackle corruption and stop corruption, but they have just become even more corrupt. That is the direction which is going to take this country down even further.