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Africa Policy Journal

Topic / Democracy and Governance

Exclusive Interview on the Zimbabwe Election with Education Minister, David Coltart

After presiding over economic decline marked by hyperinflation which brought Zimbabwe to its knees, president Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party have emerged as victors in the recent harmonized elections in Zimbabwe. Mugabe got 61% of the vote and his ZANU-PF party won 158 of the 210 parliament seats, giving it a two-thirds majority in the legislature. In order to understand what this means for Zimbabwe’s future, the Harvard Africa Policy Journal has obtained an exclusive telephone interview with the outgoing member of parliament of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) from Bulawayo, Mr. David Coltart.

David Coltart, an MDC Senator, has been a human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe since 1983. He was first elected to represent the Bulawayo South House of Assembly constituency in June 2000, and was re-elected in March 2005. In March 2008 he was elected as a Senator to represent the Khumalo Senatorial constituency in Bulawayo. Senator Coltart was sworn in as Minister of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture in February 2009. He lost his seat in the recent election and has conceded defeat to Thabitha Khumalo of the MDC-T, and will not be seeking a recount despite a narrow margin. We discuss the Zimbabwean election and more below.

HAPJ: What is your opinion of the way the elections were conducted first in your constituency in Bulawayo and overall? 

DC: Whilst the election is one of the most peaceful, we have been subjected to electoral fraud on an unprecedented scale. I have seen it in my own constituency but I have also seen evidence of that countrywide, and to that extent it has thrown the country into a state of extreme crisis.

HAPJ: Please describe these incidences of electoral fraud and any breach of electoral law? Have you brought these concerns before the African Union (AU) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) observer missions, and what has been their response?

DC: Well, even prior to the election on Tuesday (July 30th) I met with the head of the SADC mission here in Bulawayo, and presented a letter detailing six fundamental breaches of the electoral law. Since then there have been a variety of breaches of the electoral law and the constitution. There are six breaches I have identified (which took place prior to the election).

Firstly the initial proclamation of the election itself was illegal in that president Mugabe did not consult the cabinet in setting the date of the election. Secondly, the laws used to run the election using the Presidential Powers Act were in breach of section 157 of the constitution. Thirdly, the voter registration exercise was not done in compliance with the constitution. Fourthly, the section relating to state-owned media communication was regularly breached as there was failure to provide a fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and opinions in the run up to the election. Fifth, there was a biased application of section 152 of the Electoral Act (the provision which deals with election materials). The opposition MDC people were arrested for taking down posters of the ZANU PF despite lack of evidence. In contrast, ZANU-PF went on a wholesale campaign of tearing down campaign material sometimes in full view of the police but they were not arrested. The sixth issue is probably the most serious and absolutely critical was the breach of section 21:6/7 of the Electoral Act by the Zimbabwe Election Commission – the provision that obliges the Electoral Commission to supply each candidate one electronic copy of the constituency voters roll. This was a key element of this election that was never complied with. We are four days after the election and I still have not seen the said copy.

All the above happened prior to the election. On Election Day (July 31st) it became apparent that the absence of an elections voters roll was exploited. I saw hoards of shaven-head young men in my constituency, and we did not understand the full impact of what they were doing until the evening (See this video of Minister Biti facing what appears to be similar problems in his constituency on election day). There were seven polling stations that were located within a 2 kilometer radius of Brady Barracks, and when the results came out, they bore no relation to historical trends in that area. ZANU PF in those particular polling stations got ten times more votes than I did, which was completely disproportionate to what happened in other areas. The next thing is that hundreds of people were turned away in my constituency on allegedly not being on the voters’ roll. These were people that have voted before. There is a further provision of the Electoral Act that says that during the count, police are not permitted to be present. Yet in every single polling station police were present.

You see it is not just one issue; there are multiple reasons why this election was illegal and violated the constitution.

HAPJ: The two leading African observer groups –the AU, headed by Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo and the SADC– have said the elections were free and fair. What recourse does this leave the MDC and MDC-T going forward?

DC: The AU has a completely different attitude to SADC and it is not surprising that (the Zimbabwean election) has been given a clean bill of health by them. They were focused almost exclusively on whether or not the elections were violence-free. They did not focus much of the legality of it. So to that extent, their coverage is not surprising. SADC has not given a completely clean bill of health, and does not want to jump to any conclusion. They have not said to their knowledge that they found it fair. But ultimately, you asked what our options were. We have limited options, because we have seen how the courts have ruled (on matters like this) in recent times…But I think, ultimately, it is going to come down to economics, i.e. how they (ZANU-PF) are going to govern the country with such low confidence. There is a mood of depression right across this country. One would think that having won a landslide victory with 61% of the vote there would be a joyous mood in this country. It is just the opposite; there is a mood of extreme depression across the country.

HAPJ: What can ordinary Zimbabweans do? Has there been any civilian action?

 DC: I’m not sure there is any civilian action that can be taken. Tragically, now they (the ZANU-PF) are going to have to govern…We will be interested to see how they will do it.

HAPJ: The MDC-T leader Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has warned that this election will plunge Zimbabwe into crisis (See the prime minister’s statement on the election here). Do you agree with this sentiment?

DC: I think Zimbabweans are in an extreme state of crisis. I know as Minister of Education how little money there was to run the education sector, and I don’t see anything changing in the short term. The only option is if those ZANU-PF officials who have been so corrupt stop being corrupt and channel more of the diamond resource revenues towards the education and health sectors. But I think that is unlikely.

HAPJ: Going back to the race in your constituency. You have already conceded despite what some have called a narrow victory for Thabitha Khumalo (MDC-T). Please explain your decision not to seek a recount?

DC: Given the narrowest of victories like this one can seek a recount. I had a very good team of polling agents including chartered accountants and people of that caliber. So I am pretty confident that they counted correctly. Also, my battle has never been against MDC-T. I was a founding member of the MDC-T. Had it been a ZANU-PF candidate, I probably would have sought a recount, and quite frankly in parliament it is not going to make too much of a difference whether I am there or Thabitha Khumalo is. I don’t think it is worth going to the extent of a recount. But I think there is a minimal chance of the figures changing and had I less confidence in my polling agents then I would have sought a recount.

HAPJ: We have spoken about what you see in the future for Zimbabwe. What about you? Do you plan on staying in politics in Zimbabwe after this?

DC: I have been involved in politics all my life, and God-willing, I don’t see this as the end of the political road for me. It is a time to regroup. I have been at this battle for thirty years against this regime and thirteen years in parliament. Over the next few weeks I will consider my options, whether I go back to law. But, generally I think that we need to regroup, not just myself. There is no doubt that the failure of the two MDC factions to reach a coalition agreement – although it would not have won the election – certainly handed a variety of seats over to ZANU-PF on a platter. We need to regroup and I will devote more of my energy to try to strike common ground with democrats in this country.