Features

Racial profiling

International | Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe plays the race card in an effort to shore up his dictatorship

Issue: "Paying the price," Feb. 9, 2002

Listening to the publicity in Zimbabwe, voters might think David Coltart rides by night with torch and pointed white hood.

A member of parliament and a high-profile critic of President Robert Mugabe, Mr. Coltart is featured in a ruling party ad running in Harare's daily newspapers ahead of March presidential elections. A photo of him taken when he was an 18-year-old soldier is cropped to show him standing over a cartoon drawing of a subdued black man. At the bottom a slogan taunts: "We thought you knew ... Zimbabwe will never be a colony again."

Campaign literature for Zimbabwean African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the party of Mr. Mugabe, labels Mr. Coltart "a white racist" who is "appealing for British political intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign Zimbabwe." It says he is an "avowed Rhodesian at heart who participated in the brutal massacre of thousands of innocent black Zimbabweans."

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Playing to the fears of black citizens who fought for independence from Britain-off and on until 1980-is just one way Mr. Mugabe is trying to hold on to power. But the race card is a hard sell when applied to Mr. Coltart. Born in Zimbabwe and educated in South Africa, the 45-year-old lawyer returned to build a career in black-ruled Zimbabwe and to campaign for democratic change-hardly the credentials of a white supremacist. In elections a year and a half ago, he won a parliamentary seat in the working-class district of south Bulawayo. It is 97 percent black, and he received 85 percent of the vote.

Mr. Coltart is one of only three white men among 38 in the leadership of Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a 4-year-old political party that poses the greatest threat ever mounted to Mr. Mugabe's 22-year reign in Zimbabwe. Mr. Coltart's black peers voted him legal secretary of the party and elected him justice minister in the opposition's shadow cabinet. In all, only four out of 57 MDC members of parliament are white. Mr. Coltart, an elder at Bulawayo Presbyterian Church, is also at the center of a growing affiliation of churches who are beginning to dialogue with one another and with members of parliament about racial issues.

The 77-year-old Mr. Mugabe is "simply a dictator who is using race to cover real issues," Mr. Coltart opines. "It's part of a campaign that seeks to portray us as a group of whites who wish to suppress nonwhite people with some imperialistic design, with the objective of becoming a colony again." For ZANU-PF purposes, Mr. Coltart is an easier target than the opposition's candidate for president, Morgan Tsvangirai. A black trade union leader and former ZANU political hack, Mr. Tsvangirai has pulled nearly even with Mr. Mugabe as the two begin their last month of campaigning before elections.

The opposition's appeal has grown along with Mr. Mugabe's appetite for power. In 2000 his party drafted a new constitution that would have permitted the president to seek two additional terms of office, granted immunity from prosecution to government officials, and permitted seizures of white-owned land. Voters defeated the new constitution in a February 2000 referendum.

Mr. Mugabe carried out his land redistribution plans anyway, drafting brigades of war veterans to seize white-owned farms. The violence that followed crumpled the prevailing rural economy and devastated exports of corn, tobacco, and cotton. Many of Zimbabwe's white landowners did flee. Whites now number less than 1 percent-100,000-out of a total population of nearly 12 million. Mr. Mugabe moved last month to grant confiscated land to political cronies and state-sponsored journalists. Mr. Coltart says the MDC supports land reform to allow the black majority a stake in agriculture-but under the rule of law.

Mr. Mugabe's hold on power is declining. In 1990, his party won all but three of parliament's 120 seats. In 2000 elections, he lost 57 seats to the MDC. Much of the MDC success is traced to Mr. Tsvangirai, the son of a bricklayer and a father of seven children. Mr. Tsvangirai was a textile worker before joining a nickel mine, where he became general foreman. By the late 1980s, he was in charge of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. In 1997 he led a series of strikes against proposed tax hikes, bringing commerce to a standstill. That success launched both his political career and the MDC.

Mr. Tsvangirai, 50, draws support from urban workers as well as farm workers who once supported Mr. Mugabe. Party officials say the president's land grab backfired. Homes went up in flames, thousands lost jobs, and dozens were killed. As Mr. Mugabe's militiamen moved in to occupy over 4,000 white-owned commercial farms, they did not count on opposition from black farm employees faced with job losses and food shortages.

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