An Interview With… Senator David Coltart


By Graham Howard

19th March 2012

Graham Howard recounts his recent interview in Zimbabwe with the country’s minister of Education, Sport and Culture, Senator David Coltart. 

Senator David Coltart is the current minister of Education, Sport and Culture in the Zimbabwean coalition Government of National Unity (“GNU”) formed in 2008. Senator Coltart is a member of the Movement for Democratic Change party headed by Welshman Ncube (“MDC-N”). Prior to taking up his position in government, Senator Coltart practised law as a partner in the Bulawayo law firm Webb, Lowe and Barry. I recently interviewed Senator Coltart at his ministry in Harare.

David, delighted to see you again and thanks for agreeing to make time in your busy schedule to talk. As a starter question how would you describe the legal basis of the GNU and what is the General Political Agreement (“GPA”)? What is the role of the Southern African Development Community (“SADC”) in all this and how effective are these institutions?

Sen Coltart: The GPA is the so called “global political agreement” brokered by SADC to resolve the political impasse in Zimbabwe following the violent June 2008 presidential election. The GPA provisions were subsequently incorporated in Constitutional Amendment 19 of the Zimbabwean constitution which now governs the process, the powers of the GNU and its duration. The GPA is a fragile and imperfect arrangement but it has survived 3 years and will probably see Zimbabwe through to fresh elections to be conducted in terms of a new constitution.

Most people are aware that the GNU came about following hotly disputed and fiercely contested elections in 2008. We are now some years out from those days. I wonder whether you could recall how things were in Zimbabwe in 2008 especially with regard to the economy, human rights and the rule of law? In other words can you summarize the achievements of the GNU?

Sen Coltart: It is important when criticizing the GPA to recall what it has saved Zimbabwe from. 2008 saw the murder of some 400 political activists, the torture and detention of hundreds of others. At the same time Zimbabwe experienced hyper-inflation and the near total melt down of its economy. Thousands of Zimbabweans were forced into exile. Zimbabwe came very close to degenerating into a Somalia or Liberia and the GPA managed to pull the nation back from the brink. Zimbabwe’s economy, although still in poor shape, has stabilised – inflation is down to below 4% and the economy grew 9% last year. Schools and hospitals are open again and life is gradually improving. Human rights abuses have lessened dramatically.

What changes have you seen since 2008 in terms of general economic development and prosperity? In particular, why was the United States dollar introduced as the official currency and how successful has it been in countering inflation?

Sen Coltart: As mentioned above the economy has stabilised and is now starting to grow albeit off a very small base. The US$ was adopted because the Zimbabwean public lost complete faith in the Zimbabwe dollar.

The past 11 years have seen the dispossession of thousands of farmers from the land. What is the legal basis for the land grab and what are the implications for the rule of law in Zimbabwe? It is said that the government flouts SADC rulings and also Zimbabwe court rulings relating to such evictions. Is this the case and what does the future hold?

Sen Coltart: Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF party will say that Constitutional Amendment 17 provides the legal basis for the often violent acquisition of land from white farmers. My view is that amendment 17 would not pass constitutional muster because it destroys one of the key pillars of any constitution, namely the right to due process. Zanu PF has flouted several rulings of the SADC tribunal which have challenged the constitutionality of the acquisition of land. Zanu PF has not had to worry in recent years about rulings handed down by our own courts because these courts are comprised of judges who themselves received land and their judgments have faithfully followed the Zanu PF line. Until there is a restoration of the rule of law and a return to constitutionality, this fundamental breach of the natural laws of justice will continue.

Extra judicial detention, beatings, police harassment, torture and other gross human rights violations are said to remain a feature of daily life in Zimbabwe. Is there any due process of law in terms of the investigation and resolution of these alleged issues. For example, is it still commonplace for state organs to ignore or flout the order of a judge?

Sen Coltart: As I have stated above, the incidence of human rights abuses have greatly decreased in the last 3 years but there are still ongoing cases of the abuse of the rule of law and serious human rights violations. Having said that there are some elements of due process left – there remains a strong legal profession and there are pockets of independently minded judges and magistrates. Generally law enforcement agents do not have to worry about judgments that they would have difficulty following because as stated above the judiciary is packed with judges who follow the Zanu PF party line. On the rare occasions where a judgment is handed down which does not follow the party line those judgments are usually complied with.

What level of cooperation is there between the different parties to the GNU at cabinet level, and what do you think the future holds in terms of such cooperation?

Sen Coltart: There is reasonable cooperation between the 3 parties which constitute the GNU especially on non-contentious issues. For example in education I have received good support from Zanu PF on certain aspects of the education policy I have implemented. However where the debate focuses on issues which go to the core of political power, such as the reformation of the army, there is little cooperation. As for the future – without the backing of SADC and South Africa in particular the GNU would have collapsed – as long as SADC remains firm we will see the process through despite these machinations.

How is life for lawyers in Zimbabwe these days and in particular what challenges are faced by human rights lawyers? To what extent does the separation of powers still exist in Zimbabwe?

Sen Coltart: Lawyers have had a very difficult time in the last decade. Their businesses have suffered greatly from hyperinflation. Legal practice has been difficult – on occasions lawyers themselves have been threatened and even detained simply for representing those who oppose Zanu PF. But the profession has played a very important role in defending the rule of law. There has been very little meaningful separation of powers in Zimbabwe for a long time – the executive has been all powerful and has dominated the legislature and judiciary, and has done all in its power to crush the fourth estate, namely the media.

What are the prospects for free and fair elections in Zimbabwe and how can such an outcome be achieved? What can the international community do in this regard? To what extent does Zimbabwe have an independent electoral commission?

Sen Coltart: If SADC stands firm we will have elections which should be markedly better than those held in Zimbabwe since 2000. However if SADC relents and allows Zanu PF to go ahead with an early election, before fundamental constitutional reforms have been implemented, then we will have another round of violent elections in which the will of the people will be ignored or subverted. The international community needs to insist that the GPA be allowed to follow its course and that all its provisions be implemented before an election is held. Zimbabwe’s election commission is more independent than it has ever been but it is still relatively weak and surrounded by powerful forces such as the police who are often brazenly partisan.