Roy Bennett: a profile
Roy Bennett was born in Zimbabwe in 1957, the son of a farmer. He spent much of his childhood in the company of African children, becoming fluent in ChiShona—the major indigenous language of Zimbabwe—and gaining a deep knowledge of local customs and traditions. Roy's affinity with ordinary Zimbabweans has remained throughout his life and is reflected in the affectionate nickname 'Pachedu', meaning 'between us' or 'among us'.
From 1974, Roy worked as a policeman during Rhodesia's civil war, being deployed in remote areas of the north because of his linguistic ability. It was here that he first became acquainted with the brutalities of Robert Mugabe's party and its guerrilla forces. In a recent speech, he recalled the many atrocities he came face-to-face with:
'Arbitrary killings were the chosen means of putting the fear of God - or, more correctly, the fear of Satan - into innocent, defenceless rural peasant people. One of many techniques was to force so-called "sell outs" or "collaborators" to lie on the ground while their family members were forced to beat them to death. Others were tied with wire and shot at point blank range. One terrible instance remains raw in my mind. These "Liberation heroes" took a metal bar, heated it red hot, made a crook on its end, and disembowelled a woman. Her young daughter was buried alive alongside her. The whole village was forced to watch.'
Roy left the police in 1978, trained at an agricultural college and began farming in 1980, the year of Zimbabwe's independence. He soon became recognised as one of the country's most successful commercial farmers, first in the northwest and, from 1993, in the spectacular Chimanimani district of eastern Zimbabwe, where he developed a rugged 7,000 acre property, farming coffee alongside cattle, maize and horticultural products.
Entry into politics
Roy built strong ties with the Chimanimani community, employing more than 2000 people in peak season and training 42 local farmers how to grow coffee. By mid-1999, having become tremendously popular in the area, he was approached by community elders who asked him to represent them in general elections scheduled for 2000. As expected, the ruling party, Zanu (PF), rejected him as a nominee and he was then asked by the community to stand as a candidate for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), formed in September 1999.
The election campaign of 2000 was one of the most violent in Zimbabwe's history—and Chimanimani was not spared. Nor was Roy. His defection to MDC marked the beginning of relentless persecution for him and his family. In early June 2000, six weeks before the election, Zanu (PF) supporters invaded the farm while Roy was away and held a forced 'pungwe' (political gathering) at which workers were compelled to chant slogans against the MDC. When one of Roy’s loyal workers was singled out and ordered to shout 'pamberi ne Mugabe' and 'pasi ne Bennett'—'forward with Mugabe' and 'down with Bennett'—he instead condemned Mugabe and praised Roy. A vicious beating followed. Heather, Roy's wife of 16 years and five months pregnant with their third child, intervened and had a machete held to her throat. The stress of the incident and related events caused her to miscarry.
Zanu's brutality did not cow the people. Roy defeated the Zanu (PF) candidate resoundingly and joined 56 new MDC colleagues in the House of Assembly. Remarkably, after less than a year in existence, the party had taken nearly 50 percent of available seats amidst horrific violence, intimidation and vote rigging. Zanu was nevertheless able to maintain a comfortable majority because Mugabe reserved the power to appoint 30 unelected sympathisers to parliament.
Harassment and eviction
After remaining on the property for three weeks in 2000, Zanu (PF) war veterans returned a year later, this time in the company of senior members of government, the army and air force. A police detail set up base permanently on the farm. Over the next three years, farm supplies and produce was looted in massive quantities—and Roy’s workers were continuously menaced and beaten by state agents. Various court orders counted for nothing. Roy was assaulted twice and threatened with death. In early 2004, the intensity of these attacks increased: two teenage girls were raped and two employees, Shemmy Manyenyeka and Joseph Kaitano, were shot by a soldier of the national army, Joseph Nyamahwe. Shemmy received a fatal wound to the head. Finally, on 9 April 2004, police and army forced Roy’s family and management off the farm while he was away. They left with nothing. The remaining employees were scattered.
A month later, the Minister of Justice, Patrick Chinamasa—an unelected MP—told the House that 'Mr Bennett has not forgiven the Government for acquiring his farm, but he forgets that his forefathers were thieves and murderers'. Roy exploded. Walking toward Chinamasa, he shouted in Shona 'Unoda kundijairira iwewe! Unoda kuti ndiite sei?'—'Your provocations have gone too far! Do you expect me to take them lying down?'. He grabbed Chinamasa by the collar and wrestled him to the ground. A melee ensued, during which some Zanu MPs drew guns, and Roy was evicted from the chamber. In October, he was sentenced to an effective 12 months prison by the Zanu (PF) dominated parliament, the first sentence of its kind in Zimbabwean history. He emerged from Zimbabwe's jails eight months later having lost 27kg. Lawyers described how he was subjected to 'humiliating, inhuman and degrading treatment', including verbal and physical abuse, lack of clothing and bedding, and 'going for days without a proper meal'. After a tearful reunion with his family, Roy said of his incarceration: 'The inhumanity with which the prisoners are treated and their total lack of recourse to any representation or justice combined with the filth and stench of daily life is something I will never forget...'
The experience also strengthened his deep faith in God and reinforced his belief that Zimbabwe must be rebuilt on Christian principles:
'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.'
Roy was not left in peace for long. There was trouble within the MDC resulting in a devastating split in October 2005. Then, in March 2006, Zanu (PF) resumed its persecution. Mutare gunsmith Peter Hitschmann was arrested in connection with an alleged plot to overthrow the government, along with MDC MP Giles Mutsekwa and the party's Manicaland treasurer, Brian James. Inevitably, Roy was high on the government's list and a manhunt followed. The allegations soon multiplied: Roy, Hitschmann and others were said to have planned to assassinate President Robert Mugabe when he had travelled to Mutare in late February to celebrate his 82nd birthday. Roy and Hitschmann were also supposed to have prepared for acts of sabotage. Meanwhile, Minister of State Security Didymus Mutasa appeared on government-controlled television and said that
'[Zimbabweans] are absolutely secure. The only people who may not be secure ... are those people who are causing these problems because we will not spare them. And if it came to a position where we have to eliminate them physically because of what they are doing, then it is their fault, that is what they are looking for, and we will not hesitate to do that.'
Roy fled to South Africa where he spent more than a year in legal limbo before being finally granted political asylum. Back in Zimbabwe, the state's case against Roy's co-accused collapsed for lack of evidence, although Hitschmann was jailed for firearms licensing offences.
In March 2006, Roy was elected in absentia as Treasurer General of the MDC and continued to work hard for the party from Johannesburg. After nearly three years in exile, he decided to return to Zimbabwe to help with the implementation of the so-called 'inclusive government' negotiated between MDC and Zanu-PF. Taking courage in both hands, Roy believed that Zanu's reaction to his return would clearly reveal the nature of its motives and intentions—and would test the commitment of regional leaders who had underwritten the deal.
Roy received an exhilarating and tumultuous welcome by crowds in Harare and was carried shoulder-high to party headquarters at Harvest House. But the euphoria did not last long. At the very moment his colleagues were being sworn-in, Roy was abducted by state agents at the airport while returning to South Africa for the weekend. Speaking to journalists in 2010, he described his ordeal:
'I spent 40 days in the unspeakable squalor and filth of Mutare Remand Prison. During this period, six inmates died of malnutrition. I was surrounded by walking corpses, surreal apparitions of skin and bone, men whose bodies barely clung to their souls. If a government is to be judged by the way it treats its most helpless and vulnerable, then truly Zanu is but a half step from the infamy of Nazism. The conditions in Zimbabwe’s jails were little different to what I imagine they were at Auschwitz.'
Eventually released on bail, Roy spent months in court at a show trial where the state tried to resurrect the Hitschmann case, charging him with treason and 'terrorism'. The state’s arguments proved so weak that even Mugabe’s biased judge was unable to find grounds for a conviction. The best the state could manage was to prevaricate and delay proceedings on a repeated basis, disrupting Roy’s life for much of 2010. He has since been sued by the judge for $1 million for allegedly telling the media that the judge was a beneficiary of Mugabe's patronage and would be unlikely to deliver a fair judgement.
While outside the country during November 2010, Roy received news that the regime was seeking to bring new charges against him—and he was warned by supporters that further imprisonment was likely. Describing himself as 'homesick and heartsore', Roy was granted political asylum in South Africa for the second time in four years. In exile, he continues to work tirelessly for the democratic cause—and to inspire fellow Zimbabweans with a message of hope. His powerful end-of-year speech urged the people not to give up, but to fight on:
'We see the guilty mock us every day ... This junta laugh and leer, they ridicule the blood and tears of the people. We know they will not go quietly. We hope and pray for a non-violent transition—but we do not expect it. Yet, against all odds, we will achieve the dream of a new Zimbabwe built on justice and dignity. What we have is not good enough. No. We want and deserve something better. We want to be free—totally and completely free of the Zanu pestilence. Free to build a future for ourselves and our children ... How long must we suffer these humiliations and degradations? ... Zimbabweans cannot continue to be trampled, to be taken for granted. We must shoulder the burden, we must take control of our destiny, we must seize our birthright—and we will.'