Most of the world regards the 88-year-old president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, as a doddering sadist, the man who once had a servant kneel at his feet in front of foreign dignitaries after bringing him a bowl of water to wash his hands.
It’s no wonder Mugabe was one of the inspirations for Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film, The Dictator.
But in an exclusive interview, one of Zimbabwe’s most renowned human-rights lawyers, a longtime foe of Mugabe, said the dictator has his charms.
In the 1980s, David Coltart, who is white, represented dozens of families of people who the regime had “disappeared.” He drafted a devastating report in the 1990s accusing the government of overseeing a genocide.
Coltart’s activism earned him the enmity of Mugabe’s regime. The dictator denounced him on state television in 1998, and in 2003 a group of armed thugs camped out at his home and then chased him when he got in his car in what Coltart considers to have been an attempt on his life.
Today, though, Coltart finds himself in a different position as the education minister for a power-sharing government in Harare attempting to make the transition to democracy. The government, formed in 2009, includes Mugabe but also the longtime opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. From this new perspective, Coltart has had an upfront view of Zimbabwe’s tyrant in his sunset years.
“He is 88 years old, he is old and frail, but he is not doddering,” Coltart, who also serves as a senator in the government, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “He chairs cabinet meetings weekly between 9 a.m. and 12, and he is alert. He has difficulty getting up stairs. But when I compare him to other 88-year-olds, he is not doddering.”
“I don’t think he is a sadist,” said Coltart. “I think he is an ideologue. I think he believes very firmly in his role of ending white minority rule and to use any means to achieve that goal. He has done terrible things, but it is always with a political intent and objective. He has done very cruel things, but not for the sake of cruelty.”
While Mugabe has presided over massacres, the expropriation of white-owned land, hyperinflation and famine in a country renowned for its farmland, Coltart said he has seen the leader’s human side. In 2010 Coltart’s daughter, Bethany, was attacked by a lioness at a game preserve and nearly lost her arm. “In that instance, Mugabe called me aside wanted to know what medical treatment she was receiving and showed incredible compassion,” he said. “When my mother died, he expressed sympathy and was supportive. I could tell it was not put on.”
Coltart also recalled a political moment of decency by the Zimbabwean president. When he became minister of education in 2009, Coltart said, “We were in danger of seeing a lost generation.” The previous year, there had been only 26 days when students actually attended school. And yet in 2010, the U.N. Development Programme ranked Zimbabwe as the country with the highest literacy rate in Africa. The ranking was meaningless, Coltart said, but members of Mugabe’s party touted the figure to claim their education policies were effective.
“Mugabe came in and actually backed me up on this,” Coltart said, as the president told members of his own political party, “We cannot afford to rest on our laurels.”
“He has done terrible things, but it is always with a political intent and objective. He has done very cruel things, but not for the sake of cruelty.”
Despite such moments of civility, Coltart said he has never really confronted Mugabe over the attempts on his own life, or the abduction of one of his aides more than 10 years ago.
“The closest I came to discussing this was in February 2009 when I had a one-to-one meeting,” Coltart said. “I told him a lot of water had flowed under the bridge, but it was now time to move the country forward.” Coltart added that had he addressed the incidents, he thought Mugabe would have just denied his actions.
“I am a human-rights lawyer, I know crimes against humanity have been committed in our country; they have been perpetrated by people I have to meet with every week,” Coltart said. “The way I rationalize this is that in 2008 Zimbabwe was lurching towards being a failed state ... I believed in the interest of saving lives, of preventing the country from being utterly destroyed, it was necessary to compromise.”