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Matthew Parris

A remarkable testament of hope for Zimbabwe

David Coltart’s memoir describes incredible courage as well as political folly and human brutality

17 September 2016

9:00 AM

17 September 2016

9:00 AM

‘One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed though right were worsted, wrong would triumph
Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.’

This comes from Robert Browning’s ‘Epilogue’. It is quoted (though not of himself) in a staggering book by an author who in my eyes holds as good a claim to exemplify its spirit as anyone in the 20th-century history of Africa. Yes, anyone, including the many brave black freedom fighters, from Nelson Mandela down, who kept their heads held high when the odds seemed all against them. Even on Robben Island, even in the winter of his discomfort, -Mandela knew that history was on his side.

David Coltart never did, and does not now — how can he? — yet still he believes, still he risks his life. I want to ask why, and how, and in what he has reposed his trust.

Coltart is the white former Rhodesian, now Zimbabwean, whose life has been spent fighting for justice, education and sound administration in the exasperating, beguiling country of my own upbringing. He started his adult years in Rhodesia’s British South Africa Police as a one-time admirer of Ian Smith and that reckless populist’s white supremacist breakaway government — I suppose you’d call it Rhexit now. It took Coltart some time to conclude that Smith was leading his country down a cul-de-sac, and in terms of black advancement was not a visionary or even a gradualist, but a reactionary.

He developed a wary respect for Robert Mugabe, so it took him some time — and the evidence of his own eyes — to accept the reality of the Matabeleland massacres, and I sense that even near Robert Mugabe’s end, even after Mugabe’s followers’ repeated attempts to assassinate him (chronicled here like the occasional rainy day), Coltart retains some lingering sense of the greatness that was within Mugabe’s reach.

He went into the law, risking much by his defence of human rights in the face of advancing autocracy, and to this I shall return. Then he went into politics, was -elected — one of four brave white MPs — for Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change, and spent years watching that party’s agonies. Finally, in 2009, Coltart became a rather unexpected Minister of Education: a bad election result had forced Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party into coalition with the MDC.


There followed four years during which, according to every reliable report, David Coltart rescued Zimbabwe’s once-proud education system: its schools on the brink of collapse, its employees on strike, its teachers unpaid. When Zanu-PF regained full control and Coltart was dismissed, he says he was relieved; but what he had achieved had — has — helped shape for the better the lives of hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean children. He saved a country’s schools.

To describe as magnificent his recently published memoir, The Struggle Continues, is to understate. As a testament to courage it is outstanding; as a record of political folly, missed opportunity and human brutality, it is shocking. In the contrast between the often humdrum schoolboy prose, and the heroism and horror it chronicles, the book puts me in mind of the late explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s diaries. Talk about ‘underwritten’ — there are single, rather flat paragraphs without number here that any lively journalist could turn into eyewitness front-page splashes.

But Coltart’s purposes throughout his career do not include self-advertisement. In writing this book those purposes are to make, in the course of a careful record of his own life, the only reliable, scrupulous, first-hand account of half a century’s Zimbabwean-Rhodesian history that may ever be written — for many of the key players are dead or dying; and to provide, through all the struggle and every reverse, a testament of hope for the bit of Africa he knows and serves.

Why hope? The man’s courage and success spring only from hope and could have no other source, certainly not experience. Whence, then, springs the hope? I see two sources, one prosaic, one celestial.

Perhaps I should not call a belief in the rule of law prosaic, for it is the bedrock of our civilisation, and Coltart, a trained advocate, knows this. But the rule of law falls lifeless from the statute book if others do not know it too. What Coltart’s story shows is how difficult autocrats find it to chip away at a firm foundation in law, where this has been properly established in the public imagination.

Rhodesia’s judges, standing up to Ian Smith, and Zimbabwe’s judges, standing up to Zanu-PF, have had remarkable success in the last half-century. There remains a residual respect for due process in both white and black minds, and its power should never be underestimated. Thugs and despots across the globe do trample on systems of justice, but they are ashamed when they do. Coltart and many others in Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe have shamed many, and sometimes shamed them out of their misdeeds. It is rather surprising how successfully this has been done, and for how long.

Most of us, I think, find the pomposity and self-regard of the legal profession and the whole judicial process often infuriating. Reading The Struggle Continues, though, I begin to wonder whether the self-belief of lawyers and legislators may not be as much a bulwark against tyranny as those high-flown phrases about vision and progress that have, perhaps, an easier purchase on shallow minds.

The more celestial source of Coltart’s steady optimism is one that, as an avowed atheist, I find difficult to acknowledge. When a young man he had an, if not damascene, then certainly all-consuming conversion to Christianity and its God. This he maintained and maintains, through it all.

I think this man’s creed unreasonable. See, through his eyes, what he has seen and you will find it hard to share his confidence in Zimbabwe’s future. But what else can sustain hope in the face of insufficient reason for hope, save a stubborn faith in something beyond reason? I simply ask.

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