Times obituary Roy Bennett

OBITUARY Roy Bennett

The Times (UK)

23 January 2018

White Zimbabwean renowned as a courageous and outspoken critic of Robert Mugabe’s corrupt regime whose appeal transcended race

The Times Bennett, pictured in 2009, was popular with black MDC supporters JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Had Roy Bennett and his wife, Heather, died in a helicopter crash in Zimbabwe, rather than in New Mexico, then that country’s Zanu-PF regime might well have been suspected of orchestrating the “accident” in its customary style.

Robert Mugabe and his henchman who is now his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, had relentlessly persecuted Bennett — a leading member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) — for nearly two decades.

They seized his farm, arrested and imprisoned him on trumped-up charges, and forced him and his family into exile. They had reason to wish Bennett dead. He was not just an extraordinarily brave and outspoken critic of Zimbabwe’s brutal, corrupt regime. He was also impossible to dismiss as just another aggrieved white farmer and a colonialist leftover. Bennett spoke fluent Shona.

He understood and cared deeply for black Zimbabweans, whether they were his farm workers, his fellow prisoners or ordinary citizens. He considered himself African and was affectionately known as “pachedu”, the Shona word that roughly translates as “one of us”.

He was one of the few white Zimbabweans whose appeal transcended race, and that made him a very dangerous opponent to a regime that shamelessly stoked racial tensions to shore up its rule.

Tough, blunt, impulsive and dynamic, Bennett was a successful farmer and coffee planter who became a member of parliament and a top adviser to Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC’s leader. An accomplished horseman, he played for Zimbabwe at polocrosse, a sport that combines polo and lacrosse.

He also represented the sort of country that Zimbabwe, given the chance, might have been: multiracial, prosperous and free.

Roy Leslie Bennett was born in Rusape, a town in the east of what was then Rhodesia, in 1957. He grew up on his father’s farm in Karoi, in the north, and learnt fluent Shona from the farmworkers’ children. He was sent to boarding school in Harare, but ran away to join the British South Africa Police at the age of 16.

The war against white minority rule was raging at that time and, because he spoke Shona and could survive in the bush, the security forces sent him to remote frontline areas.

There he saw first-hand the brutality used by Mugabe’s guerillas against suspected black collaborators. Their relatives were forced to beat them to death, or they were tied up and shot at close range.

In one instance he recalled that “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.”

Aged 21 he left the police to attend agricultural college. He soon acquired four small farms in the Karoi area and married Heather, a garage owner’s daughter from Chivu five years his junior. They had two children: Charles, who later joined the British Army; and Casey, who works in the safari business in South Africa.

In 1993 Bennett sold his Karoi properties in order to buy the 7,000-acre Charleswood Estate in the mountainous Chimanimani district of eastern Zimbabwe. He respectfully sought the approval of the community elders for the purchase.

He employed 2,000 local people, helped neighbouring smallholders to grow coffee and became so popular that the elders asked him to contest the general election of 2000. He stood as a candidate of the newly formed MDC and won comfortably — despite Zanu-PF’s best efforts to intimidate him.

The ruling party’s henchmen invaded his farm and terrorised his workers. His wife, who was five months pregnant with their third child, had a miscarriage after she tried to stop them beating a farmworker.

“They kept on hitting one man with an axe handle,” she said. “It was unbearable. I begged them to stop so they pushed a spear against my neck and forced me down. That night the pain began. I lost the baby. It was a boy.”

Zanu-PF continued to persecute Bennett relentlessly despite, or because of, his overwhelming endorsement by the black voters of Chimanimani. He was one of three white MPs.

For the next three years its thugs repeatedly invaded his farm, looting its equipment, stealing its produce and killing its cattle despite six court orders in his favour. Two farm workers were killed, others were raped and most were forced from their homes.

Bennett was arrested and assaulted several times.

In April 2004 he was forced to abandon the farm for good. A month later, Patrick Chinamasa, the justice minister, goaded him in parliament. “Mr Bennett has not forgiven the government for acquiring his farm,” he said, “but he forgets that his forefathers were thieves and murderers.”

Bennett marched up to Chinamasa, shouting in Shona: “Your provocations have gone too far. Do you expect me to take them lying down?”

A fracas ensued and Bennett was escorted from the chamber. Zanu-PF sentenced him to a year’s imprisonment with hard labour for contempt of parliament. The Speaker who announced the sentence was Mnangagwa.

Bennett was released from Harare’s infamous Chikurubi prison eight months later after an experience he described as a “how I imagined hell”. He had lost four stone. He was made to stand naked in front of prison guards and given a uniform covered in human excrement and lice.

“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 that I will never forget,” he said.

Imprisonment, however, had cemented his Christian faith and made him “stronger than ever to challenge the totalitarian regime in Zimbabwe”.

The 2005 parliamentary elections took place while he was incarcerated. His wife stood in his place and fought a spirited campaign, but Zanu-PF blatantly rigged the Chimanimani vote.

“It stinks,” Mrs Bennett said. “Our support on the ground was massive.”

Still Bennett was hounded. In 2006 he and others were accused of plotting to assassinate Mugabe during the president’s 82nd birthday celebrations in Mutare. This time Bennett fled to neighbouring South Africa after Didymus Mutasa, minister of state security, threatened him with “elimination” on state television.

The South African government, which was sympathetic to Mugabe, initially denied him political asylum, but finally relented. During his exile Bennett was elected as the national treasurer of the MDC and served as the party’s international spokesman. 

Mugabe then stole the 2008 presidential election so brutally and blatantly that he was forced by international pressure to form a government of national unity with the MDC the following year. Tsvangirai, the new prime minister, appointed Bennett deputy agriculture minister.

Bennett flew home after receiving vague assurances that he would not be arrested. He received a hero’s welcome from MDC supporters, but Zanu-PF were furious that a white farmer had been given a portfolio in which he could challenge their seizure of farms. Mugabe refused to accept Bennett’s appointment.

Shortly before the new government was sworn in Bennett was arrested as he sought to fly back to South Africa in a private plane. He was charged with treason and was held for 40 days in what he called the “unspeakable squalor and filth” of Mutare prison.

“During this period six inmates died of malnutrition,” he told journalists after he was finally released on bail.

“I was surrounded by walking corpses, surreal apparitions of skin and bone, men whose bodies scarcely clung to their souls. If a government is to be judged by the way that it treats its most helpless and vulnerable, then Zanu truly is but half a step from the infamy of Nazism.”

Bennett’s trial began in October that year. He was acquitted after the case against him collapsed.

The prosecution’s main witness had been tortured and coerced into testifying.

On the day of his acquittal the regime charged him with illegally storing grain, then with perjury and contempt of court, but Bennett had had enough of prisons. He once again fled to South Africa, where he denounced the “criminal syndicate” running his homeland.

Bennett never returned to his beloved Zimbabwe. He was never able to assume his ministerial post.

Five years ago he survived prostate cancer and two years ago he bought a run-down farm in a remote area of Zambia which he was reviving with the help of his son.

Always optimistic, he was thrilled when Mnangagwa ousted Mugabe last November, not because he liked Mnangagwa, but because he believed the Zimbabwean people had finally found their voice.

“Never before have I been so proud to be a Zimbabwean,” he declared. “Never again will there ever be a dictatorship in Zimbabwe . . . They have let the genie out of the bottle.”

He did not live to see if he was right. Earlier this month he flew to the US for a cancer check-up, and visited a wealthy British-born friend and supporter, Charles Burnett, in Houston. Their helicopter crashed and burst into flames as they were flying to Burnett’s 12,000-acre ranch. The Bennetts, Burnett and both pilots were killed. 

Roy Leslie Bennett, farmer and politician, was born on February 16, 1957. He died in a helicopter crash on January 18, 2018, aged 60.