Frenemies of the State

Once the most outspoken critic of Zimbabwe’s government, David Coltart is now on the inside

Benedicte Kurzen/The New York Times/Redux

In 1981, in Cape Town, David Coltart was a gangly university student from newly independent Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe had just become prime minister. Coltart believed that Mugabe’s government was sincere about promoting racial reconciliation in Zimbabwe, and he tried to recruit the country’s ministers to come to Cape Town to address white Zimbabwean students there. After being hassled for his efforts by South Africa’s apartheid regime, he received a personal telegram from Mugabe. “He wrote, ‘I’ve heard about the work you are doing, and I want to encourage you,’” Coltart told me. “‘There is a place for all of you [in Zimbabwe], and you have nothing to fear but fear itself.’”

In recent years, however, Coltart could not have imagined himself standing in the same room with Mugabe without fear. A still boyish-looking 52-year-old lawyer, Coltart spent the past two decades as one of the most outspoken opponents of the Zimbabwean ruler. As Mugabe morphed from independence hero into despot, Coltart helped found the Movement for Democratic Change, the country’s main opposition group; became one of a handful of whites in the parliament; and defended human-rights activists and other enemies of the regime. For five years, I’ve met with him repeatedly on my clandestine visits to Zimbabwe, as I’ve reported on the country’s spiral into repression, violence, and economic ruin.

But in February of this year, after a tumultuous concatenation of political events that eventually saw his party join a unity government with Mugabe, Coltart found himself serving as minister of education. At weekly cabinet meetings, he now sits two seats away from Emmerson Mnangagwa, the minister of defense and a key member of Mugabe’s Joint Operations Command, which orchestrated the torture and killing of countless members of Coltart’s party last year. “It’s a bizarre situation,” Coltart told me over dinner at the York Lodge, a leafy retreat in a suburb of Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. At an awkward swearing-in ceremony at the State House, recalled Coltart, “we were called one by one into [Mugabe’s] office, and it was a bit like naughty schoolboys going to see the headmaster.” When his turn came, he said, “Mugabe launched into a monologue about how important schooling was, and he made this strange comment, saying, ‘You will appreciate that we’ve got some problems in education.’”

That was an understatement. By February 2009, when Coltart took over, Zimbabwe’s education system had collapsed: 20,000 teachers had abandoned their posts and left the country because they were being paid in worthless currency, and nearly all of the country’s 7,000 schools were shuttered. One of the first moves of the new unity government was to outlaw the Zimbabwean dollar and convert to a U.S.-dollar economy. Coltart set salaries at $155 a month, and he received a flood of applications from teachers wanting their old jobs back. (Even so, many teachers say they’re unsatisfied with the new salaries, and one teachers union went on strike in early September to protest their “abject poverty and perpetual debt.”) But Coltart has learned that fixing the system is not so easy when Mugabe—or Mugabe’s surrogates—are looking over his shoulder. The Education Ministry’s permanent secretary, a Mugabe loyalist who “views all the teachers as MDC sympathists,” Coltart says, has thrown up bureaucratic roadblocks such as mandatory police checks; as a result, only a few hundred teachers have been rehired. “It’s not a pleasant process, and if I wasn’t a determined, stubborn type of fellow, it would be harrowing,” he told me.

Coltart would like to start introducing education reforms—adding human-rights courses to the curriculum and getting Zimbabwean schools to address such controversial issues as the military’s massacre of thousands of civilians in Matabeleland in southern Zimbabwe in 1983. But Coltart knows moving too fast could bring everything crashing down. “It’s a flawed agreement, and anyone who thinks that overnight it would yield dramatic changes is simply being unrealistic,” he told me.

As logs crackled in the fireplace, and our waiter brought in a dessert of pears in white-wine sauce on fine English china, Coltart told me that he was heading to a fishing lodge in Zimbabwe’s eastern highlands, for a weekend retreat where he would spend three days breaking bread with members of Mugabe’s inner circle. “You meet and get to know these people, and it becomes less tense,” he says. “But you’re still very wary.” Not without reason, it seems: at his swearing-in, Coltart reminded Mugabe of that long-ago telegram sent to him in Cape Town in 1981. “I told him, ‘You said we should all come back and we should have nothing to fear. Well, I’m back.’” Mugabe just laughed.