Yesterday, I had the chance to speak with David Coltart, Zimbabwe's Minister of Education, Sport, and Culture. A human rights lawyer who campaigned against the regimes of Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe, Coltart was a founding member of the Zimbabwe's main opposition party -- the Movement for a Democratic Change. He was among the MDC politicians, led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who entered government in an uneasy coalition with Mugabe's Zanu-PF following the disputed election of 2008.
We discussed why he opposeses economic sanctions, why it would be dangerous for Mugabe to exit the scene too quickly, and an unlikely role model for democratic transition:
Robert Mugabe has called for elections to be held this year. Is the MDC preparing for them?
The call for elections comes from hardliners within Zanu-PF.
It doesn't enjoy support from moderates within Zanu-PF, SADC [the Southern African Development Community], or South Africa.
If Robert Mugabe decides to align himself with the hardliners, there's going to
be a very high political cost to pay in terms of his support in the region.
There's also a financial cost they haven't confronted. The
country's on a shoestring budget because we've adopted the U.S. dollar -- we
can't print our own money. So they're going to have to find money from
somewhere. What the region, all of us in the MDC, and even moderates within
Zanu-PF are saying, is that the process of constitutional reform must be
completed, the reform of electoral processes must be completed. Once that's
happened, then fresh elections must take place.
If they do go ahead with these elections, they will be on
the basis of the old laws. We may not even contest those elections. So one will
be left with just another crisis. It won't resolve the political situation.
Robert Mugabe's health has been the subject of a lot of speculation lately. Does that factor into your political planning?
The bottom line is that he's 88. He's old and he's clearly
tiring. But from what I've seen, he's in remarkably good health. So I don't
think it helps to plan around Robert Mugabe. I think one should make the
assumption that he's going to be part of the short-to-medium term political
One of the ironies is that Mugabe is necessary in the short
term. If he went suddenly, the divisions between Zanu-PF would come out in the
open and cause a lot of turmoil. I think that there are many within Zanu that
recognize that he's the glue that holds the party together.
Some might say, "great, let Zanu fall apart." But there's a
danger that it would fall apart in such a way that there would be a lot of
strife and the military would use unscrupulous means to stay in power.
It seems to me that certainly within the cabinet there's a
fairly strong moderate wing forming under Vice President [Joice] Mujuru. Whilst I don't agree with many of the
policies, on some of the basic issues they clearly are committed to seeing this
reform process through and are even prepared to contemplate the loss of power.
It's been over three years since you entered into this unusual power-sharing government. Do you think it's possible to say now whether it's been a success?
One needs to go back to where we were in 2008. Zimbabwe was
lurching towards becoming a failed state. There was hyperinflation, people
flooding out the country, thousands losing their lives to cholera, the prospect
of virtually a lost generation. In that context, despite all the problems, we've
achieved a great deal. We've stopped the cholera epidemic, we've reopened
hospitals and clinics, we're dealing with sewerage issues in cities, we're
getting clean water to people in cities.
Take education. When I took over I had 8,000 schools closed and 90,000
teachers on strike. Education was facing total collapse. We've got every single
school open we've progressively increased the salary of teachers, we've got the
textbook-to-pupil ratio down to one-to-one.
The same with the economy. We had hyperinflation in 2008.
This year's it's down to four percent. Bank deposits are growing. Don't get me
wrong. The economy is still in extreme crisis. I liken the country to a jumbo
jet that was in free-fall and we've leveled it out about 200 meters above the
ground. We could stall again but we are gradually gaining altitude.
What are you looking for from the international community?
First, sanctions should go. They've outlived their purpose.
They were always symbolic in many respects and their primary purpose was to
stigmatize those responsible for human rights abuses. That stigma will not be
removed with the removal of sanctions. Ironically, sanctions are being used by
hardliners as an excuse for ongoing economic woes. Of course, it's a lie. But
for a country that' starved of information, it's a lie that people sometimes
The second thing is that the international community needs
to support the social ministries within the country and civic organizations --
not political parties -- that are working to get a new constitution and get
better electoral laws. Take education. The United States in the last three
years has put in a million U.S. dollars. In relation to other countries, that's
minimal. Germany has put in $18 million. Finland has put in over 10 million
euro. The contribution of the Germans and the Finns has had a profound impact.
Not just an educational impact but a kind of peace dividend that shows people
something can be gained through a fragile but slow process of democratization.
If there's improved health, and sanitation, and education,
Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF are not going to get credit for that.
What are your main priorities right now on education?
Our primary goal this year is to make conditions for
learning safe. We're looking at the provision of water and sorting out sanitary
conditions for children. We've had two decades of neglect. So the physical
buildings are collapsing. We need to get toilets working, provide clean water,
and repair roofs and windows. Nothing grand, just stabilization.
We've just pushed through a medium-term plan that has been
approved by cabinet. A key component is keeping teachers on board. We lost
20,000 teachers in 2007 and 2008. We've attracted a lot of them back but we
need to do a lot more.
How would you assess America's role in Zimbabwe's democratization?
I thinks its important to emphasize consistency in foreign policy. America's attitude toward apartheid was to support the
process [of reform.] People have very short memories. We've forget about Magnus Malan and the military leaders in South Africa, but the process succeeded because the
international community embraced it. We haven't seen this process [in Zimbabwe] being
embraced by the United States in the same way.
Even currently, there's an inconsistency. We see the U.S and
Great Britain opening up with Myanmar. The military is still in effective
control there -- more overtly in Burma than in Zimbabwe. At least in Zimbabwe we
have the fig leaf of a civilian government. In Burma you don't even have that.
Despite that, there's encouragement for the process. I don't see that happening
in Zimbabwe. All we ask for is consistency.
Do you think that the kind reform from within we've seen in Myanmar over the past two years could be a possible future trajectory for Zimbabwe?
The great fear about Zimbabwe is that we could revert to what Burma was prior to this period of relative enlightenment -- that the military will
exercise their power directly. Having said that, I think we're far further down
the road than Burma in terms of a new constitution. Morgan Tsvangirai has had a
lot more effective power than Aung San Suu Kyi. We've got actual control of
whole ministries. So I think if the international community supported that
process more proactively, one could argue we have an even greater chance of
getting to effective democracy.