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An insider’s account of Mugabe’s regime is also a brave act of defiance


What is it about Southern Africa that creates so many moral heavyweights? It seems that adversity and repression in that part of the world stimulate rather than inhibit, and bring out the best in its citizens in response to the worst in its rulers.

David Coltart

Hence, the region’s Nobel Prize winners and feisty clerics, outspoken parliamentarians and courageous activists.

Whatever the reason for the disproportionate number of these men and women, all prepared to confront power with truth, David Coltart, a 59-year-old Zimbabwe-born civil rights lawyer, deserves to join their ranks.

The Struggle Continues is not only a comprehensive indictment of President Robert Mugabe’s brutal regime, and the white minority governments that preceded it.

This is a magnificent, monumental, two-fingered act of defiance by an extraordinarily brave man, made all the more remarkable by the fact that nearly all the main culprits from Mugabe’s era are still alive — and that the author and his family still live in the southern Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo.

If a single theme emerges, it is Coltart’s belief that the rule of law and the principles of democracy will one day triumph, ending decades of tyranny imposed by Zimbabwe’s rulers, past and present, white as well as black.

After digesting his book, it seems clear, alas, that it will be a very long wait.

What Coltart calls “an autobiographical political history of Zimbabwe’s last six decades” begins with a lyrical description of a “blissful” childhood, albeit one that — as he readily acknowledges — was “oblivious to the reality of life for most black Rhodesians”.

He was still in his teens when political reality intruded in the form of the deepening confrontation between African nationalism and white resistance. A nightmare began.

Coltart, born in 1957, was just 17 when he chose to enrol in the police force rather than wait until the army would conscript him.

Within two years, he was on the front line of Rhodesia’s guerrilla war, the consequence of Prime Minister Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1965.

Initially sympathetic to Smith, Coltart’s experience in the bush was life-changing. Above all, he learnt that “various interrogation methods, such as the use of waterboarding and electric shock treatment, were used to extract information from guerrillas.

“Bar talk in the mess,” he writes, “was full of gory detail of how guerrillas had ‘sung’ after being tortured … War had exposed wholesale depravity on all sides, and I was being sucked into it, relentlessly … Although I was aged just 19 at the time, I am ashamed that I did not do more then to prevent its use or speak out against it.”

Granted permission to leave the police and take up a place at the University of Cape Town, he had his first encounter with Mugabe, leader of Zanu PF, victor in the 1980 independence elections and the new Prime Minister of Zimbabwe.

In a telegram responding to a letter from Coltart, by then a supporter of the new government, we meet Mugabe the magnanimous, committing to “a policy of reconciliation, whereby, our people must put aside the hatreds and animosities of the past”. Inspired by this promise, Coltart returned to Zimbabwe to set up as a human rights lawyer.

He soon discovered that the country was beginning to “unravel”. Apartheid-era South Africa was determined to make life difficult for its neighbour, launching a sabotage campaign and supporting dissident former guerrillas.

Mugabe the magnanimous soon-to-became despot, was planning the subjugation of the southern province, stronghold then, as now, of the opposition.

To his horror, Coltart discovered that torture in the new Zimbabwe remained systemic. This time, however, he did not remain silent.

Some readers may find that his exhaustive account of how he went on to enter Zimbabwe’s brutal political arena tests their interest in a far-off land.

They should read on.

His account of his journey into Parliament as an opposition MP, becoming a respected minister of Education in a government of national unity, is more than an insider’s account of the machinations of power: it is a blow-by-blow analysis of Zimbabwe’s decline towards a failing state, with endemic corruption and a ruling party determined to retain power at all costs.

There is, however, a puzzling omission: there is not a reference to the destructive and bitter rivalry between the country’s Shona majority and the Ndebele of the south.

As for Mugabe, he emerges as an enigma. Coltart records the President’s solicitous inquiry after the health of his daughter, Bethany after she had been mauled by a caged lion. At the end of a cabinet meeting Mugabe took him aside to ask after her welfare: “He appeared genuinely concerned about her.”

It was “ironic”, notes Coltart, “given that operatives under his jurisdiction had done their best to kill me in Bethany’s presence seven years earlier”.

Politics in Zimbabwe is a strange as well as a nasty business. — Financial Times. The Struggle Continues; 50 years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe by David Coltart is being serialised by our sister paper, The Standard.

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