Where we went wrong


Pretoria, Saturday 6 May 2017

A Zimbabwean Perspective:  The Importance of Taking a Principled Stand

By Ben Freeth

History is littered with cases of peoples and nations that allowed tyranny to overcome them.  Once the slide was allowed to start – and then continue – the gathering snowball effect destroyed everyone and everything in its path. 

I come from Zimbabwe and have personal experience of being hit by the avalanche that is created by allowing the rule of law to break down.  I want to speak from that perspective and give some pointers on how it happened and what we did – or didn’t do – to stop it.   I hope that you are able to listen to, and understand what happened north of the Limpopo River - and to learn from it.

Back in the late 1990s, Zimbabwe had had nearly 20 years of “Independence” – I use that term guardedly because 37 years on, Zimbabweans are yet to get their Independence.  During the ‘90s, we had one of the fastest growing economies in Africa and we were in the top few wealthiest countries per capita.  A study published in April this year found us to be the poorest country in wealth per capita on the continent.  The banks can’t give us our own money from our accounts, our currency has collapsed completely, we have close to zero investment, and we have had the fastest shrinking economy in history in a peace-time situation. Furthermore, 90 percent of the white population and a quarter of the black population have left the country.  So what went wrong?

In the ‘90s we were busy running our businesses.  We stayed out of politics and out of civil society in the one-party State we were living in.  We had no civil society and independent civic institutions worth speaking of and the church was also largely silent.  We kept our heads down and carried on. 

As a nation we had been through a bloody terrorist war in the 1960s and ‘70s, where tens of thousands of innocent civilians had been murdered with the support of the Chinese and other Eastern bloc countries.  We had also been through a genocide in the ‘80s.

In 1983, just three years after independence, Robert Mugabe sent his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to the opposition ZAPU stronghold of Matabeleland to smash dissent. Over a five-year period, an estimated 20,000 Ndebele civilians were killed as part of a campaign of alleged political genocide. In 1987, Mugabe switched tactics, inviting ZAPU to be merged with the ruling ZANU party and creating a de facto one-party authoritarian state with himself as the ruling president.

Although news of the massacres leaked out early on, the British government in particular was concerned that pressure on Mugabe would push him closer to the Soviet Union and North Korea, so responses were largely weak, late and ineffectual.  In fact Britain gave our President a knighthood in 1994.  As Zimbabwean citizens, we failed in that we didn’t document the massacres.  We put our heads down.  Lots of our farmers and farm workers were killed, but we carried on.  Those who survived just kept going.  The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe’s definitive report on the massacres, “Breaking the Silence”, was only released a decade later in March 1997.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a democratic awakening began and eventually an opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was formed in 1999 in Zimbabwe.  President Mugabe realised he would be voted out of power in the year 2000, so he tried to push through a new Constitution that would entrench his power - with a sweetener that he could take land for free.  The people voted “No!” to this new Constitution.

Within two weeks of that ‘no’ vote the avalanche began.  The rule of law started to break down.  Judges were intimidated and hounded out of office.  The Constitution was changed.  Court Judgments were deliberately ignored, with no consequences or accountability.  Hate speech was spewed out from the highest office.  Farms were invaded by government-supported thugs.  Farmers and farm workers were violently beaten and killed with complete impunity.  The law was changed so that government could acquire farms with no judicial process.  All they had to do was put us on an acquisition list in the newspaper and suddenly we would face two years in jail if we didn’t get out of our homes.

Our animals were hamstrung or killed.  Our gardens were invaded by mobs of drunken youths.  Trees were cut down in our gardens and on our driveways, which was psychologically very disturbing to us.  Fires were lit on our lawns - and our cattle and wild animals were slaughtered and eaten, with drums being beaten all night long so we could not sleep.   We lived in siege conditions.  Some of us couldn’t leave our homes for weeks on end.  Some farmers had armed invaders living in their homes with them for months on end – some of these thugs were Members of Parliament or senior policemen. 

New laws were made to allow tractors and other equipment to be taken from us – which they did en masse.   Anyone who tried to take legal action was targeted.  Anyone who tried to physically defend himself was killed or put in jail.  You cannot fight a state when there are tens of thousands in the armed forces with guns.   We were worn down with relentless violence and intimidation and fear.  We became weak.  We could not stand any longer. 

Within a year and a half, the Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU) had capitulated.  Situation reports that we were compiling on a daily basis were stopped.  Legal action was withdrawn from completely.  A policy to not talk to the press came into being.  The Farmer magazine was closed down by the CFU for reporting the abuses on the farms. Human rights abuses were not recorded.  We were told by the farming leadership that we were on our own. 

We were cut off, isolated and targeted.  Fellow farmers learnt not to come out to help besieged neighbours for fear of victimisation.  Town people learnt the same approach.  Socially, conversation about what was taking place was even banned.  Farmers gave up recording what was happening to them because there was no one prepared to do anything about their reports, or to come out and witness what was going on.  The diplomatic community refused to go to the farms and witness the jambanjas first hand.  They stayed cosily in the Harare “bubble”.  The strategy of the farming leadership became a strategy of appeasement and “dialogue”, with every man for himself.

Kangaroo courts were set up by lands committees all over the country.  Farmers were summoned one by one to defend themselves in front of committees of 10 or 20 people on their own against false accusations.  Lists were drawn up as to which white man could stay and which would be forced to leave.  Extortion rackets began where farmers had to pay thousands of dollars to be on the list to stay.  The list would change.  The lands committee would change.  The rules would change.  The allegations against us would change.   We lived in a state of continual uncertainty and fear.  We never knew if the vehicle coming down the driveway was coming with orders to take us out.

Farms were trashed.  In 2001, mobs moved through Doma, one of the most productive farming areas in the country, and in four days completely trashed over 50 farms - even down to killing household pets; taking the roofs off farmers’ homes; stealing all the furniture; ripping out all the plumbing pipes and electric wires; smashing the loos, baths and basins; rolling up the security fences; stealing the crops in the barns; ripping out the wiring in tractors and combine harvesters; puncturing the diesel tanks and letting the diesel flow down the road…

In the dialogue process we, as the CFU, were assured publicly by all the senior Ministers and the Vice President that no one would be arrested under the new law that made it illegal to be on a farm that had been listed for acquisition in the newspaper.  Two weeks after that, in August 2002, farmers were arrested en masse and put in jails all over the country for committing the crime of still being in their homes and farming on their properties.  Some of the other farmers, the leaders of the appeasement policy, were left alone and not arrested or harassed.  This created division and hard feeling amongst us.

In the hierarchy, virtually every senior Party official, Government official, policeman, army officer, judge, magistrate, secret policeman, MP and Senator took a farm - or 2 or 3 - or even more.  The President and his wife led by example and are recorded as having taken 16 highly productive farms.     

A scramble to get out of Zimbabwe began.  Farm after farm – or what was left of them - was packed up in 24 hours and farmers emigrated all over the world.  The town people did the same.  Many of their businesses depended entirely on the agricultural sector and they could not survive without it.

Those who tried to stand against the lawlessness and create accountability by using the law were treated like lepers.  We were not invited to farmers’ meetings.  We were not welcome – even where a fellow farmer was murdered we were treated with hostility in case we spoke to the press.  It is a story of lawlessness and fear - and a people who were so overwhelmed by it all that they were unable to take a stand.    

What was our mistake?  Were we not just people caught on the wrong side of history in the path of a massive avalanche that no one could have ever stopped?

I don’t believe so. 

There is much that is proactive that could have been done in Zimbabwe and wasn’t.

Why didn’t more of us stand?  We were afraid.  Fear overwhelmed us. Justice was not important enough to us.  The principles of right and wrong were not firmly embedded enough within us to stand – come what may.    

We were fighting a war we did not understand.  We understood fighting a war in the 1960s and ‘70s against terrorism with guns and a Government backing us up, but we did not understand how to fight a war against Government hate speech, Government lawlessness and a Government-controlled system of controlled anarchy.   

We did not have a body of men large enough, or courageous enough, or principled enough, or organised enough, or resourced enough to use the law to stand firm and stop the lawlessness in its tracks. We had been too busy keeping our heads down with our businesses to realise the importance of preparing ourselves to stop the avalanche from gaining momentum - and being able to wipe us all out.    

In South Africa the avalanche teeters on the mountain above you.  In the face of it, even amongst the horrific murders and violence in your country taking place as I speak, I see much that is proactive and positive happening.  I’m not going to give you any kind of security plan.  You have experts here already for that.  I wish to simply give you some points for optimism and hope as you create the avalanche barriers:

  1. Your Constitution:  So far you have protected your precious Constitution - and the laws that flow from it - from being changed or discarded.  We did not do that in Zimbabwe.  This is a critical avalanche barrier at the top of the slope that needs to stand.  You must do everything to stop your Constitution and the rule of law from being dismantled if you wish to enjoy the freedom that can be had under law.   
  1. Your Media:  You are using the media effectively and well.  This is another critical avalanche barrier that needs to stand.  When people are able to get away with murder without anyone even knowing about it or the facts involved, then murder escalates.  It’s all about putting the truth clearly and factually out there about what is going on.  Never embellish the truth.  Put out the truth as it is in all its gory details, with as much video footage as you can.  It needs to be told, if anything is to be done to stop the murders.     
  1. Your Democratic opposition:  You have a viable, democratic opposition that is delivering, gaining ground and becoming established - and it’s promoting the rule of law and Constitutionalism in South Africa.  You need to support and encourage the rule of law on all sides of the various divides, and help it stand.  
  1. Your Civil society:  You have a civil society that is standing up to protect rights across the spectrum.  Forward thinking and proactive organisations that wish to stand for the rule of law - like AfriForum - must be supported and enlarged to ensure that people down to grass roots level in the communities are not left on their own.  The church has a massive role to play in this too.  Civil Society is there to stand for justice in the face of injustice.   
  1. International instruments you are signed up to:  You are using international instruments and informing the international community to create accountability and ensure that accountability is able to continue.  We never did that in Zimbabwe.  Accountability is the key to justice.  Justice is the key to a free and prosperous society.
  1. Economic upliftment:  You have economic upliftment programmes in the poorer communities where you are using your organisational and other skills to create outgrower schemes where everyone is benefitting.  These must be enlarged upon.  You need to reach out to the poor in your communities and through the church if the poor are to work with you in achieving a just and free South Africa.  These have been very effective in some situations in Zimbabwe.  It is vital with all upliftment programmes to involve the media and bring all such initiatives into the public domain. The government will try to downplay any initiatives where white people are involved as it will go against their populist propaganda - so this cannot be underestimated in terms of its value, or underutilised.
  1. Prayer:  And finally, in all this you have prayer.   We must pray and seek God’s face - and where there are wicked ways in us, or in our communities, we must face them honestly and turn from them.  It was wonderful to see the moving prayer service that Angus Buchan led during April here in South Africa.  The fact that it was attended by over a million people gives great cause for hope.  Your Chief Justice calling the country to prayer is unprecedented.  It is amazing!   Where there is bitterness, hatred and hard heartedness we must turn from that.  It will destroy us if we hang on to it. I have seen that in Zimbabwe too.     

I can tell you from my own personal experience that when everything was taken away from us; when I was stripped; when I was tortured by evil men and my bones were broken; when we were  abducted and taken to a torture camp in the bush where there was every possibility they were  going to kill us; when I was put in a dark jail unjustly; when our home was burnt down with everything in it; when our community publicly rejected us because we wished to stand for justice; when our livelihood was taken away; when our crops and tractors were all taken before our eyes  -  then, after that, through that, I realised how important it is to know God and be carried through by Him.  He can stop the avalanche - but even if he doesn’t, he can carry us through the avalanche and bring us through whatever is to come.

So take courage from this.  Vasbyt!  Thank God for each day.  Stand up courageously even when others fail to do so. God bless you all. 


Cell:  +263 773 929 138 

E-mail:  freeth@bsatt.com