The Costs of Rescuing Zimbabwe – Interview with Sen. David Coltart

Posted by James Kimer on June 8, 2012.

For an ordinary looking man, Zimbabwe’s Senator David Coltart cuts an imposing figure.  As one of the few Anglo-African politicians currently serving in the government (as Minister of Education, Sport, Arts, and Culture), Sen. Coltart has gained widespread acclaim for his social achievements within Zimbabwe’s often contentious policy environment.  A lawyer by training, Coltart became Sectary of Legal Affairs for the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and has even survived assassination plots for his representation of victims of the Robert Mugabe regime.  Now Coltart along with the rest of the MDC find themselves in a power-sharing agreement with Mugabe that is nearing the end of its five-year term, bringing to head another confrontation between hardliners and reformers for the future of the country.  Has the coalition been worth the price?  What will happen next?  During a recent visit to Washington DC, Nigeria Intel had the opportunity to sit down with Sen. Coltart to examine these questions.

Q: Robert Mugabe is often seen as the definition of an authoritarian African leader.  How much autonomy do you have in your Ministerial post, being from the opposition MDC party?

It’s a very important question, as the problem that we have is that although we serve as Ministers, we have a lot of civil servants within the ministries belonging to the ruling ZANU-PF party who can frustrate programs, and in some cases, block them entirely.  So we certainly do not have unfettered power.  To be quite frank, ZANU-PF Ministers have far more power, so when they decide on a new policy direction, they are able to execute it more quickly.

Over the years I have learned to go the extra mile to get things done.  The power-sharing situation has forced me to look at policies that were demonstrably non-partisan – policies that were clearly going to help people and children without being ideological, and then persuading and building up the support for that policy direction.

Q:  What are some of the achievements you can point to during your time at the ministry?

We actually just recently passed a sweeping, comprehenisve change to Zimbabwe’s education policy, which is going to have an enormous impact on the daily lives of our country’s children.  We have established greater autonomy for teachers, decentralization of decision-making to schools, and passed through agreements new curriculum.  We have also implemented mechanisms for more schools to raise funds from student fees, while considerably increasing the number of school days with the help of cooperation with international NGOs and volunteers.

Q:  What’s the purpose of your trip to the United States?

Primarily I am here as Minister of Education to raise awareness and support of the education sector, not just with the U.S. government but also with World Bank and UNICEF, among many other organizations.  The secondary purpose of my trip is to talk about the current U.S. policy toward Zimbabwe.

The current policy of the State Department has pretty much been to disengage with Zimbabwe, or at best, to restrict their involvement with certain key areas of the country.  The attitude has been until ‘Mugabe goes, there will be no change.’  This has negatively impacted many social services in the country, including the education sector, as minimal resources have been available to our country’s children.  So what I am trying to do is put the argument that America’s policy toward Zimbabwe, though understandable in some respects, is not working.

By disengaging with Zimbabwe, they actually play into the hands of hardliners who want to derail the process of liberalization and reform.  The sanctions serve no useful purpose now, and they would be far better advised to start engaging, especially with moderates, and to support social ministries like health, education, water – because by doing so not only do they help the humanitarian situation, but actually bolsters the transition to democracy as it builds confidence among the public that there are tangible benefits to having closer relations with the United States.

Q:  What do you see as the critical areas that need reform in Zimbabwe?

Well, fundamentally we have to address the economy and increase the state’ revenues.  We need to encourage investment, as we have insufficient investment capital to re-invigorate existing businesses while we need fresh capital to come for new companies.  Our red tape and indigenization policies have been problematic – our focus has been too much on cutting up the existing cake, when we should be focusing on growing the cake and achieving empowerment for Zimbabweans through a growth of our economy.

Secondly, we have to liberalize within the country many of our domestic laws which inhibit existing Zimbabwean companies.  We have a problematic tariff structures, endemic internal corruption, and all kinds of rules and regulations that prevent people from forming businesses and contributing to the economy.

Thirdly, in the course of the last 10-12 years, we have lost literally hundreds of thousands of our most talented people.  Even if we get the economic policies right, if we don’t have policies that encourage the return of our best and brightest, economic development will be frustrated, or even worse, stillborn.

And lastly, once we have investment rights and revenue flows going, the next critical thing is to get our budgetary priorities sorted out.  We need to cut down on the size of government.  We need to ensure that social ministries are adequately funded.  We have a tax environment and general business environment that encourages growth.

Q:  How do you think human rights issues will be handled in a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe?

It’s a very complicated issue, and the danger of focusing exclusively on the past is that it may prevent any positive future from emerging.  We are on a knife’s edge in some respects.  If we focus in the short term on retribution for past evils, we may well drive those responsible for crimes against humanity into having coup and seizing power to protect themselves.

Q:  So you would favor an amnesty of sorts?

No.  And, I’m not speaking as government now, but rather as Secretary of Legal Affairs of our party, we believe that the most important elements to address this would be through truth telling process. Specifically through a Truth Commission, not a truth, justice, and reconciliation commission.  We believe that victims should be given the opportunity to say what happened to them and their loved ones, and secondly, they should be able to tell us what should happen regarding justice and reconciliation.  It shouldn’t be up to lawyers and politicians to determine what measures are needed to achieve justice.  Once victims have actually said what they want – and you may be surprised – then we can begin to formulate policies that in the medium to long term to address these issues.

Q:  What are the possible scenarios for the near future of Zimbabwe?

I think it is wrong to work any plan of action around the prospect of Mugabe going soon.  He is 88 years old, but he is an incredibly fit 88, and generally I think it is wrong to plan around such an outcome.

In terms of scenarios, I think the most likely prospect is that we muddle through as we are at present, and eventually get through the process of constitutional reform and electoral reforms, and have elections some time next year.  These elections are not likely to be perfect but they will be better than the last elections.  Those elections may not yield a clear cut winner, and we could well have a coalition arrangement between parties.

The other scenario is that the hardliners throw caution to the wind and are so concerned about the future that they decide to abandon this course of action and have an election based on the existing constitution.  If that happens, the country is likely to be plunged back into disorder.  However I do not think that elections without reform will enjoy the support of the international community or even SADC, and the loss of this support will cause a steep decline in the economy and a loss of confidence among allies.  Ultimately those responsible for taking that course of action would be forced to negotiate again, and through these negotiations we may well arrive at yet another arrangement similar to the current one, which will not be good, but at least will keep the country going.

Q:  What’s your response to the criticism that the power-sharing agreement of the MDC has only empowered Mugabe and prolonged a dictatorship?

I think it’s difficult to counter that criticism because there is an element of truth to it.  There is no doubt that by agreeing to go into this government, we have played a role in the rehabilitation of Mugabe’s reputation by extending him a political lifeline, so that criticism is valid.  My response to that is that ‘this may be so,’ but what were the alternatives?  And no one has been able to identify a viable alternative.

What is clear is that had we not entered into the coalition, the country would have collapsed totally, degenerating into a Somalia or Liberia-like situation.  The military would have still had access to diamond money as they always have, a flow of money to retain their core.  Education would have collapsed, thousands of people would have died from the collapse of the health system and the spread of cholera epidemic, and would have caused the destruction of numerous institutions both private and public.  And so the question to us became:  was that a price worth paying?

Consider how bad things had gotten.  When I took over as Minister of Education in 2008, there were only 26 school days.  The public examinations of the previous year had not even been marked yet, four months into the new year.  We lost 20,000 teachers out of the system in 2007-2008, and that would have continued exponentially.  When a system breaks down totally like that, it takes a vast amount of money to repair it, so it was our goal to prevent a total breakdown of every public institution because this is the only path to a more prosperous future.

So to conclude – I recognize the criticism, but in the absence of any rational alternative, what was to be done?  Yes, we have rehabilitated Mugabe – but at the same time we have saved lives, we have saved institutions, and we have made the costs of rescuing Zimbabwe much cheaper.

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