'I make no apologies for being
By Tom Leonard
Live8 will merely finance 'Mercs for jerks', says Roy Bennett,
the former farmer thrown into a filthy prison by Mugabe for pushing a fellow
Zimbabwean MP. Tom Leonard meets him
If Bob Geldof was casting around for an African hero, a true
exemplar of courage in adversity in that troubled continent, he probably
wouldn't spare Roy Bennett a second glance. White, middle-class, articulate and
well-nourished, he hardly fits the bill as an embodiment of the starving,
Zimbabwean at heart: Roy Bennett|
And yet to his fellow Zimbabweans - black and white - the
48-year-old former coffee farmer is the sort of man who should have been soaking
up the applause on the Live8 stage.
At home in the Chimanimani region of south-east Zimbabwe, where
subsistence farmers eke out a living on the border with Mozambique, local people
call him "Pachedu" ("one of us"). As many of his fellow white farmers gave up
and left, Mr Bennett and his wife, Heather, stayed on at the request of their
black countrymen to fight the Mugabe regime. It was a decision that led to years
of intimidation and harassment, the Bennetts' ordeal providing one of the most
shocking stories to emerge about the misrule of their country.
A month ago today, a very different looking Roy Bennett -
long-haired, bearded and four stone lighter - was released
from Chikurubi Prison, after eight months' hard labour in conditions he
describes as "how I imagined hell". His offence - other than to defy the regime
and be the only white farmer MP - was to have pushed Mugabe's justice minister,
in a heated exchange in the Zimbabwe parliament.
Today, Mr Bennett is in London, recuperating with Heather, 43,
who is half-Scottish - on holiday but also anxious to highlight the crisis in
his country. "I'm a Zimbabwean. I have no other country," he says. "I make no
apologies for being white. I can't be held for any injustices in the past, but I
can play a part in the future - to bring transparent and honest representation
to the people."
In 1999, Roy Bennett, a third-generation Zimbabwean, was just a
coffee farmer. A fluent Shona speaker, he set up various community projects and
advised subsistence farmers, prompting local chiefs to persuade him to run for
Parliament. After unsuccessfully applying to be a candidate for Mugabe's Zanu-PF
party, he stood successfully for the newly formed opposition Movement for
Democratic Change in the 2000 elections.
Two months later, while he was away in Harare, so-called Zanu-PF
"war veterans" descended on his farm and claimed it as their own. They beat up
Mr Bennett's workers and when Heather intervened, they turned on her. Although
four months pregnant, she had a macheté held at her throat and was made to dance
and sing Zanu-PF songs in the rain. Two workers were killed in front of her.
When she finally escaped, she had miscarried.
Bennett with his wife Heather, upon his
The government stole everything they owned, including their
7,000- acre farm, 800 cattle and 107 tons of coffee. He left farming and started
a panel-beating business in Harare.
In parliament, he remained a thorn in the government's side. Last
year, during a debate on the controversial land reform programme, Patrick
Chinamasa, the justice minister, branded Mr Bennett's father and grandfather
"thieves and murderers", prompting him to storm across the chamber and push him
to the floor.
Flouting its own rules, parliament sentenced him to eight months
in jail without a proper trial. He spent his sentence in three prisons, where
conditions in the cells he shared with as many as 49 others were "absolutely
On his arrival at Harare Central jail on October 28, he was
forced to strip naked and dress in prison clothes, before being taken to the
cell. "As we got to the door, they told me to strip off the clean clothes they
had given me and they threw me filthy, torn prison garments with excreta and
lice on them," he says. When his lawyers came to see him two days later, the
authorities tried to make him take off the old clothes and put on the new ones,
but he refused.
In jail, prisoners slept on concrete floors with just one dirty,
lice-infested blanket. They were given nothing to wash with and the food was
three cups of gruel and vegetable soup a day. Roy Bennett didn't see meat for
Although, in private, some tried to help him and allowed his wife
to bring in supplies, in public, the guards did their best to break him. He was
forced to kneel for long periods and given back-breaking labour. A favourite
punishment was to make him run 200 metres to and from the river carrying two
four-gallon cans of water for the vegetable garden.
Beatings were routine. Prisoners, mostly just petty thieves, were
escorted into a cell out of sight, and beaten on the soles of their feet so the
marks would not be visible. Some were crippled. "They would force you to lie on
your stomach, lift your feet up and beat you on the soles," says Mr Bennett. "I
refused to go into a cell, so they would have had to beat me publicly.
"As most prisoners had no visitors to bring them fruit, soap or
toothpaste, they had to obtain them by prostituting themselves to the
long-sentence prisoners." And yet some still offered their meagre supplies to Mr
Bennett. "It was very touching. They did it because they felt I had sacrificed
everything for them."
Prison made Roy Bennett more determined than ever to oust Mugabe.
It also confirmed his Christian beliefs. Adversity brings out the best in
people, he says. "It taught me that you don't build a country on racism, hatred,
vengeance. You build it on reconciliation, love and gentleness: all the good
things. The last thing I felt for those who persecuted me was bitterness and
vengeance. All I had to do was picture them with their hatred and the spittle
coming out of their mouths. I pray for those idiots. When you're that full of
hate, you must have a terrible life."
His wife, who led
the campaign for his release, ran his business affairs and even stood
in his place in the general election, has been "absolutely amazing", he
says. "She stood for parliament and did things she thought she'd never do. She's
a very shy and gentle person but she drew from inner depths."
Addressing a Movement for Democratic Change
They have a son and a daughter - Charles, 20, who is studying at
the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, and Casey, 18 - but the loss of
their unborn child has affected both of them. Although they had planned to have
two more children, Roy Bennett immediately had a vasectomy.
"Under the circumstances, we'll never be able to give children
the attention we should be giving them. We've got far greater commitments to the
country and the people around us." He adds: "I'd have loved to have had more
children." No longer an MP (his
wife lost because the vote was rigged, he says), he is keen to get back into
As Zimbabwe heads into meltdown, he is optimistic that Mugabe's
days are numbered, and that the truth - that his land reforms had nothing to do
with colonialism and everything to do with racial hatred - is finally getting
through to other African leaders.
"I believe we are heading towards a free and fair election in
Zimbabwe, and democracy." Zimbabwe will "implode" unless Mugabe negotiates, he
insists. "He's totally propped up by the military. If they cannot access
salaries, if the whole country grinds to a halt and there's no food or fuel,
they'll turn on him. I don't think he's that stupid that he doesn't realise that
But why, at a time when the West happily brings down tyrannical
regimes elsewhere, is it taking so long in Zimbabwe? The other African nations
"are living in a colonial past and use that as an excuse", he says, but adds
quickly that the developed world is just as much to blame. "One of the most
racist things you can do is to refer to Africa as the Third World, to make
excuses for despots to get away with tyranny because of a colonial past.
"This whole racial bullshit is a thing of the past. We are people
moving ahead in a global village where we are accountable for our actions and
accountable to our people."
As for Live8, the concept is commendable but misconceived, he
says. "The aid you're pumping in through those corrupt governments never gets
through. It's gobbled up. It's Mercs for