Senator David Coltart is the current Minister of Education, Sports and Culture in Zimbabwe. In the 1980s, Coltart was keenly involved in campaigning against the colonial Rhodesian Front. He is currently part of the opposition party, MDC, in the Mutambara faction.
At one stage, Zimbabwe’s education system was noted as one of the best in the world. Sadly, the crisis in the country that started in 2000 has caused it to deteriorate. Teachers left schools to pursue other careers or to emigrate, and funding for public schools fell sharply with the failure of the Zimbabwean currency and economy.
In this interview, Senator Coltart addresses some of the historical elements that have maintained the strength of education in Zimbabwe even throughout its turmoil in the political crisis, and his policies for reforming and improving education in the country.
Me: Zimbabwe is acclaimed as having one of the most literate populations in Africa and a lot of people would say that this is a triumph in the field of education in itself. How far do you feel that Zimbabwe’s efforts at education have been successful?
DC: There’s no doubt that Zimbabwe has one of the best education systems in Africa and the roots of that go back well over 50 years. In the 1950s, a very good curriculum for all peoples was devised. The problem with the education system in the 1960s and 70s was that a series of bottlenecks were created so that whilst all white children benefitted from the curriculum only very talented black children could get through these bottlenecks. But the bottom line is that the underlying education system even during Rhodesian days was very good. This is especially apparent if you compare it to South Africa, where they had Bantu education. The basic Bantu education was terrible. It was designed to ensure that all people could only be menial labourers. They didn’t have good literacy and numeracy skills.
A Zimbabwean classroom. Citing an educational "crisis" on the ground and questionable methodology, education Minister Colatart has scoffed at a United Nations Development Program's 2010 Statistical Digest which put the southern African country's literacy rate at 92 percent — the highest in Africa.
What happened in 1980 was that ZANU-PF came to power and, in essence, broke all the bottlenecks. They rapidly expanded the education system- that at its core was good. That resulted in, by the end of the 1980s, Zimbabwe having, by some considerable margin, the best education system in the whole of Africa. South Africa on the other hand is still battling with its education system because the foundation was rotten, so they will have to completely transform their system. So, up until the late 1980s, we had a terrific education system. Sadly in the last two decades it has been terribly under-funded. So, by the end of the 1990’s, it was in decline, not in terms of the basic standard, but in terms of access to education, especially for poor Zimbabweans.
Me: Where do you feel education still needs to be improved?
DC: What I’ve been trying to do during the last two years is stabilize the sector, stop it from continuing its free-fall. And, we’ve pretty much done that. We’ve got teachers back in schools, teachers teaching again, textbooks delivered to schools. Our great challenge now is to get adequate resources, to ensure that teachers are paid a viable wage and to start rehabilitating the physical infrastructure of our schools, which is in a serious state of neglect. Another key program is the review of the curriculum, which hasn’t been comprehensibly reviewed since the 1980s. There have been major changes in teaching techniques and knowledge in particular subjects, so we have to bring our curriculum up to date.
Me: You have spoken about how Zimbabwean education is well-based on older colonial structures, but how do you feel education is now being effected by a new Zimbabwean culture, new traditions, new colours, in a more racially-open period in Zimbabwe?
DC: Well obviously in last 30 years, our curriculum has been made increasingly relevant to an African culture. The strength of a Southern Rhodesian, in other words a pre-UDI, system is that it emphasized strong numeracy and literacy skills, which transcend culture. And a curriculum that was relevant to Africa, relevant to Zimbabwe was built upon that foundation. So, it is a curriculum that is entirely relevant to Zimbabwe.
Me: Well, I feel that Zimbabwean and African history is neglected in the classroom, by my experience. Perhaps this is limited to private schools, however. But what effect do you think it has had on Zimbabwean nationality and national identity?
DC: I think that you are correct that there is such a terrible gulf in the teaching of history because in private schools there is a focus on western, American and European, history and very little taught on Zimbabwean or African history. The other extreme is that the government history curriculum is very partisan and in fact it’s racist in some respects. So the history curriculum is a key area that needs curricular change and refinement. We need a history syllabus that is far more objective and less divisive. Then we will need to make sure that all sectors of our society learn that history, and in that way use it as a tool to help reconciliation.
Me: You’ve spoken briefly about the gap between private and public education and how class distinction has crept into education. To what extend to you feel that the closing of this gap is a priority in reforming education and how should Zimbabwe go about doing this?
DC: There is no doubt a huge gulf, which is growing because of the serious under-funding of government schools. We’ve got to tackle it in a couple of ways. Obviously we need to direct further resources to government schools. I’ve always said there’s no point pulling private schools down to the level of government schools. Instead we have to aim at raising the standards in government schools to those enjoyed in private schools. The main strategy is to generally get more government resources for these schools.
We also have some more refined policies, the principle of which is the academies program, where we are focusing resources on a few key government schools, rehabilitating their infrastructure, getting the best teachers in and then reserving 40% of the intake for talented yet disadvantaged Zimbabweans. In that way I hope we will be able to provide for talented, disadvantaged Zimbabweans a sort of “half-way house” school which is a lot cheaper than private schools but which offers an education and facilities that are comparable to private institutions.
Me: In thinking about this development of education, the idea of tertiary education comes to mind. How important do you think universities are? Does tertiary education hold less priority than primary and secondary education?
DC: Obviously we have to preserve our tertiary institutions because otherwise where will we get our doctors and engineers? I believe, and this is a personal view and not a view of the cabinet, that we’ve spread our resources too thinly over too many universities, and we probably need to focus our limited resources on a couple of key universities. I’m not saying that we close the other universities down, but we need to recognize that until we get some centers of excellence at tertiary level, the danger is that all our universities will just be second- or third-rate, and remain that way.
Zimbabwe's cricket team celebrates a wicket in an international match. After a famous 2003 political protest by two star players, and the subsequent breakdown of Zimbabwe's once world-class team, part of Coltart's work has included rebuilding the sport in Zimbabwe and restoring a formidable team onto the international cricket scene (Picture: Chirundu.com)
Me: As well as being a minister of education, your portfolio includes sports and culture, which some would see as being completely separate entities to education education. What role do you feel that sport and culture play in the education of Zimbabwe’s youth?
DC: Well, I think that there’s a logic in putting them all together. Increasingly in the modern world, sport and art provide a livelihood for people- I have a stock phrase, I say “Sport is business, art is business.” In our curriculum reform we intend to ensure that sports and art become an integral part of the curriculum, taught in the same way as Maths or English.
Me: Well, sport has an integral role in Zimbabwean society. In 2003, key cricket players, Andy Flowers and Henry Olonga wore black armbands during the world cup to signify their mourning over the “death of Zimbabwe”. The sparked quite a heated controversy. How much do you think this action impacted politics in Zimbabwe in a tangible way, and how much do you think sports has a role in politics?
DC: Firstly, Andy and Henry’s protest was done at what arguable were some of the darkest days in our history. Their actions had a profound impact on world opinion. They highlighted the very grave human rights violations that were taking place in the country and they were seriously damaging to ZANU-PF and Robert Mugabe. I did and still do, support what they did.
They were very brave acts that had a very powerful effect. Having said that, I believe that sports and politics, as far as they can should be kept apart. I don’t think that sporting associations should ever become partisan. But individuals do have fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, and they should, within reason, never be denied the opportunity of expressing their views. Andy and Henry’s actions didn’t disrupt the game in any way- I think that they struck the perfect balance. Another area that sport can have a powerful role is in reconciliation.
Me: Clearly, politics creeps into areas where people would prefer it remained absent. Politics have caused various disruptions in the education sector for example, with teachers strikes a few years ago being of great concern throughout Zimbabwe. How far do you think politics has impacted on education? And can education impact politics?
DC: Well, I was saying in parliament today, the education ministry in any country should be the least political of any, because children should be allowed to develop their own thought processes. In the Zimbabwean situation, schools have been used as bases for militia and teachers have been threatened and that is abhorrent.
But if children are taught properly and develop good literacy and numeracy skills, if they are able to access the Internet and read, that knowledge invariably results in people being empowered. And empowered people result in a strong, democratic nation, because people know their rights and can see through the wiles and corruption of politicians. Society becomes more accountable. A strong education system is a prerequisite to an effective and strong democracy.
Coltart: "The education ministry in any country should be the least political of any"
Me: One of the big problems governments face is how to distribute resources. In what ways do you think education should remain a priority for government spending when there are so many other areas where government invests?
DC: Well, I don’t think you can support the education sector at the expense of the health sector or vice-versa. I think other sectors of society should be deprived so that both education and health are adequately funded. I personally believe that the defense, especially, of small nations like Zimbabwe does not require anything like the amount of funding that we’ve allocated. Also, the size of government in Zimbabwe, 39 ministers, is ridiculous. This is where cuts should be made