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."
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.
While the campaign showcased Mr. Mugabe as tough on white post-colonialists, it actually upset his base in the countryside. Last December his party's candidate lost a mayoral race in a city only 20 miles from Mr. Mugabe's home-a once-unthinkable defeat. Today polls show Mr. Tsvangirai with 26 percent support among the electorate to Mr. Mugabe's 28 percent. Clearly most voters are undecided or unwilling to voice their choice, but that alone is a development in the opposition's favor. In the past everyone said they would vote for Mr. Mugabe.
But the stakes for the opposition MDC only increase as elections approach, along with the danger. Last month parliament passed measures making it a crime to criticize Mr. Mugabe, along with increasing the reach of the security apparatus. Mr. Mugabe also outlawed foreign journalists and restricted all political activity.
Two weeks ago the MDC gave up trying to hand out literature or hold public meetings, Mr. Coltart told WORLD, after one MDC supporter was killed and several others were critically injured at a weekend rally Jan. 26. Mr. Coltart said ZANU-led police and youth brigades showed up to spark violence. He told a local newspaper: "We have to give four days notice to the police, and this puts our supporters at risk. We will be holding small house meetings in future for which we do not need official permission."
Physical threats go hand in hand with the political intimidation. Death threats against Mr. Coltart go back to 1994 when he began to speak out against the government. One year ago he received a warning serious enough to send him into hiding, along with his wife and three children.
Apart from the desire to silence him, Mr. Coltart believes Mr. Mugabe's party has an intermediate motive: to turn attention to the white minority and away from the black opposition. Black MDC leaders receive death threats, too, but don't get headlines for them. "It is one of the sad things of the world," said Mr. Coltart. "If I disappear, I have no doubt it would make front-page news. For most of my black colleagues that would not happen."
But the news from Zimbabwe is reaching beyond its borders. In December Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed an incentive package for Zimbabwe: sanctions if Mr. Mugabe continues to violate the rule of law, U.S. dollars for land reform and election oversight if he democratizes.
Commonwealth nations mulled sanctions against Zimbabwe after British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Mr. Mugabe "a disgrace to his own country." Mr. Blair asked that Zimbabwe be suspended from the 54-nation bloc, made up of Britain and its former colonies, and recommended that the European Union impose immediate sanctions.
Mr. Mugabe is also losing support on the continent, where he was once considered the vanguard of pan-Africanism. South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki has refused to break ties with its long-standing ally, but he noted, "Wrong things are happening in our neighborhood." South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was more blunt, telling reporters that Mr. Mugabe "has gone bonkers in a big way" and was on "the slippery slope of perdition." Ghana's foreign minister also spoke out against the president, even though the two nations have close ties; Mr. Mugabe's wife is from Ghana.
Talk of censure leaves Mr. Coltart hopeful: "There is a deep anger sweeping through the country. Now I believe that we must start thinking about the transition to democracy. What makes such a belief all the more astonishing is that it has developed in the context of the bizarre events in the last five months when the government has waged a low-intensity war against all those opposed to it."