As the nation transitions to democracy, long-time President Robert Mugabe foe David Coltart has an upfront view of the Zimbabwean leader in his sunset years.
Most of the world regards the 88-year-old Mugabe as a doddering sadist. It’s no wonder Mugabe was one of the inspirations for Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film, The Dictator. But in an exclusive interview, one of Zimbabwe’s most renowned human rights lawyers, a long-time foe of Mugabe, said the Zanu PF leader has his charms.
In the 1980s, Coltart, represented dozens of families of people who the regime had “disappeared”.
He drafted a devastating report in the 1990s accusing the government of overseeing the Gukurahundi “genocide”.
Coltart’s activism earned him the
enmity of Mugabe’s regime. Mugabe denounced him on State television in 1998 and in 2003 a group of armed thugs camped out at his home and then chased him when he got in his car in what Coltart considers to have been an attempt on his life.
Today, though, Coltart finds himself in a different position as Education, Sport, Arts and Culture minister in the inclusive government attempting to make the transition to democracy. The government, formed in 2009, includes Mugabe, but also the longtime opposition leader and now Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. From this new perspective, Coltart has had an upfront view of Mugabe in his sunset years.
“He is 88 years old. He is old and frail, but he is not doddering,” said Coltart, who is also senator for Kkumalo constituency in Bulawayo. He chairs Cabinet meetings weekly between 9am and 12, and he is alert. He has difficulty getting up stairs. But when I compare him to other 88-year-olds, he is not doddering.
“I don’t think he is a sadist,” Coltart said. “I think he is an ideologue. I think he believes very firmly in his role of ending white minority rule and to use any means to achieve that goal. He has done terrible things, but it is always with a political intent and objective. He has done very cruel things, but not for the sake of cruelty.”
While Mugabe has presided over massacres, the expropriation of white-owned land, hyperinflation and famine in a country renowned for its farmland, Coltart said he has seen the leader’s human side.
In 2010, Coltart’s daughter, Bethany, was attacked by a lioness at a game reserve and nearly lost her arm.
“In that instance, Mugabe called me aside, wanted to know what medical treatment she was receiving and showed incredible compassion,” he said.
“When my mother died, he expressed sympathy and was supportive. I could tell it was not put on.”
Coltart also recalled a political moment of decency by the President.
When he became Education minister in 2009, Coltart said: “We were in danger of seeing a lost generation.”
The previous year, there had been only 26 days when students actually attended school. And yet in 2010, the United Nations Development Programme ranked Zimbabwe as the country with the highest literacy rate in Africa. The ranking was meaningless, Coltart said, but members of Mugabe’s Zanu PF party touted the figure to claim their education policies were effective.
“Mugabe came in and actually backed me up on this,” Coltart said, as the President told members of his own political party: “We cannot afford to rest on our laurels.”