FP Interview: Roy Bennett

One man stands at the heart of a power struggle for the future of Zimbabwe. His name is Roy Bennett, and he is literally fighting for his life. The white former landowner and member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is standing trial for trumped-up terrorism and treason charges — proceedings that began Nov. 9. Zimbabwe’s attorney general, Johannes Tomana, is leading the prosecution himself. 

How this plain-spoken, sturdily built, third-generation Zimbabwean ended up on trial has much to do with his position as a practitioner in the country’s most politically controversial industry: agriculture. Bennett was a coffee farmer, running one of Zimbabwe’s many prosperous outfits until President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF Party government confiscated the land in 2003. The seizure was part of Mugabe’s larger “land reform” scheme, officially intended to give land back to the black Africans deprived of it during colonization. In reality, the campaign resembled more closely what the country’s own minister of justice, Patrick Chinamasa, called it — a kind of punishment for white farmers’ forefathers being “thieves” and “murderers.” 

But it wasn’t only Bennett’s farm that landed him in his current predicament. Bennett was a parliamentarian and a key player in the MDC, which he joined in 1999. Being in the opposition made Bennett unpopular from the start, but things became worse after the land seizure, and especially after Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s chose him for deputy minister of agriculture in the power-sharing government that took shape in the spring of 2009. Mugabe refused to swear Bennett in to his post, citing Bennett’s ongoing trial — a refusal that featured high on the list of grievances that inspired Tsvangirai to boycott the power-sharing government in October. The prime minister has since returned to negotiations, with a looming deadline in early December to sort out disagreements with Mugabe. 

Attorney General Tomoma (appointed by Mugabe) is accusing Bennett of providing $5,000 to purchase weapons in a conspiracy to overthrow the president. The defense says that the key witness, a former, legal arms dealer named Peter Michael Hitschmann, tried in 2006 on the same charges, was tortured into implicating Bennett. (Hitschmann was writing an affidavit claiming he had no reason to implicate Bennett in October, but the lawyer helping him was arrested and later released on bail.) If found guilty, Bennett faces life in prison or the death penalty. 

With December looking ever closer and the coalition government dangerously near collapse, the conclusion of this trial will serve as a litmus test. At stake is whether the MDC and its supporters can work with ZANU-PF and its founder, Mugabe, a man who has proudly compared himself to Adolf Hitler. Bennett, for one, is confident that Mugabe’s reign of terror will end, though not necessarily anytime soon. Speaking to journalist Laura Wells, Bennett explains why Mugabe is a racist, why Tsvangirai’s wife may well have been killed thanks to foul play, and why, nonetheless, the opposition keeps fighting. 

Foreign Policy: When Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai left the power-sharing agreement with Mugabe last month, he cited the government’s treatment of you as one of his reasons for leaving. He has recently returned to the government and you are still on trial. Can Tsvangirai help you? 

Roy Bennett: No, I don’t think he can at all. Mugabe is still fully in control. [His party,] ZANU-PF, is still fully in control. The MDC has pulled out of that government to show that, unless we were taken seriously within the cabinet and there was definite power-sharing, we would no longer be part of that government or part of any dealings with ZANU PF. I am one of those outstanding issues; I need to be sworn in [as deputy minister of agriculture.] 

FP: What do you think will happen to the current power-sharing agreement? 

RB: You can’t have an agreement where one side is doing what you’ve agreed to and the other side is totally intransigent, totally unreliable, and totally deceitful. Unless the sincerity and the proper [political] will to make this work come from above in ZANU-PF, [that is, from Mugabe,] this thing will never move forward or succeed. It will all fall apart. 

FP: Do you ever expect to be sworn in as deputy minister of agriculture? 

RB: No, definitely not. I am everything he [Mugabe] hates, and I think it is a very big thorn in his side that I could be sworn in the agricultural portfolio, where I could expose a lot of the corruption, rampant corruption, theft, and bad policies that are taking place there. 

FP: As a part of Mugabe’s “land reform,” the government has confiscated many, mostly white, landowners’ property, including yours. In a 2004 session of Parliament, Minister of Justice Patrick Chinamasa justified land reform on the basis that your forefathers were “murderers” and “thieves.” How does this happen? 

RB: [Mugabe] has used the land and the race [issues] as a front to destroy opposition figures, to intimidate opposition figures, and to destroy an opposition constituency. You take my farm, for instance, and where I was. I was a senior leader within the Movement for Democratic Change. I had a farm that was under the Zimbabwean Investment Center, which gave it special protection, because I had an external partner through the export processing zone. One Easter, in 2004, when my wife and I were with friends on holiday in Mozambique, [Mugabe] moved the military in and took over my farm. I’ve never set foot back there. They took everything I own — even my clothes, my children’s clothes. Since then, I’ve been in prison on three occasions; I’ve been arrested on more than 11 occasions. I’ve had my home searched for arms of war more than 15 times. I’ve had my workers killed. I’ve had my workers’ daughters and wives raped. 

FP: You have spoken about racism against whites within the current government. How deep-seated is it? 

RB: The current government, especially under ZANU-PF, is full of hate. We [whites] don’t see ourselves as whites; we see ourselves as Zimbabweans, and fortunately, the majority of people in Zimbabwe see it the same way. It’s a small echelon of the ruling ZANU-PF and Robert Mugabe. But he, himself personally, is an avid, avid racist. 

FP: You are now on trial for terrorism and treason. What evidence do they have? 

RB: They have absolutely no evidence whatsoever. The whole issue is premised on the arrest of one Hitschmann in 2006, along with 12 other people. He was charged with exactly the same charges I’m being charged with, and so were the other 12. It was established in court that the warn and caution statement [a signed statement made under police interrogation] that he had given had been obtained under duress. It had also been proven under doctors’ reports that he had been tortured. So that warn and caution statement was thrown out of the courts. All the terrorism and treason charges were dropped. They were dropped against all 12 of them. Hitschmann was then charged under a completely different offense. In his trial, I was never mentioned. And since then, he has contacted his own advocate and given an affidavit to say that he had absolutely nothing to say against me or to involve me in the proceedings of what I am being accused of. 

FP: The current administration has put you in jail off and on during the past year, even against high courts’ and the Supreme Court’s rulings. How can they do that? 

RB: There is no rule of law in Zimbabwe; there’s selective application of the rule of law. Patrick Chinamasa, who is the minister of justice, destroyed the independent judiciary. When he was sworn in as the minister of justice, [he] interfered with the judges, forced them to resign and leave — any independent judges, replaced the judges with political appointees who he gave farms for patronage to make sure they would remain loyal and have the rulings that he wanted. And you can see even with my case, his interference is there the whole time. 

FP:  If the current President and his political allies have not treated you fairly before, how can you receive justice this time around? 

RB: There will be no justice. You know, I don’t know how they are going to do it. When Hitschmann gets into the stand and completely denies everything, and makes him [Attorney General Johannes Tomana] look stupid, I don’t know what they are going to do or what their next move is. I honestly believe, in my case, that they are using me. I am very sure they will sentence me. And once they have gone ahead and sentenced me, they will go back to negotiate with my party to have an amnesty in order that their people that have done the murders and the killings during the last elections, when over 200 MDC people were killed, their eyes gauged out, their throats cut, killed in the most brutal manner. The perpetrators are known, and those perpetrators were instructed by Robert Mugabe himself to carry out those actions. I honestly believe that’s what this whole thing is about, is to use me as a bargaining point for amnesty in order that those people will say, “He’s on death row. Now he’s going to hang, unless you agree to amnesty, across-the-board amnesty.” 

FP: You are potentially facing a death sentence or life in prison. How are you feeling about your trial? 

RB: You know, when you enter into a struggle, and you genuinely believe in what you are doing, and you live under injustice, and you live under a regime that is dictatorial and oppresses people, there have to be sacrifices. I have a constituency that has placed me where I am. I have entered into this foray of my own will. And if I have to sacrifice by going to prison or whatever that exposes and shows this regime for what it is, so be it. 

FP: You have said you’d be willing to die if that’s what Mugabe and and his ZANU-PF want. Do you think it will have to come to that? 

RB: It could easily come to that. You’re dealing with total, total thugs and mafia-type people. They don’t care. Right now it’s the looting of the Marange diamonds. It’s Robert Mugabe’s wife together with [Reserve Bank Governor] Gideon Gono that are taking the gold, the diamonds — it’s all about money. There is a company that has the claim to those rights. The high courts of Zimbabwe have ruled that that company can run that mine, yet the government has taken the mines in partnership with a South African company. They are illegally mining diamonds on somebody else’s claim. The whole thing is so rotten, it’s disgusting. 

FP: Prime Minister Tsvangirai has seen many attempts on his life, suffered torture during multiple jail sentences under weak charges at best. He has lost his wife in a suspicious car accident in which he was also injured. Though he nominally has more power than President Mugabe, do you think Mugabe will defeat Tsvangirai? 

RB: Definitely not. Mugabe and ZANU-PF’s days are over. It’s a process, and it’s a matter of time for them to go. And it depends on how brutal they become and how willing they are to take Zimbabwe to the brink. But definitely, they will go. There is absolutely no doubt that Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF have lost the popular support of the people of Zimbabwe. And the more they become intransigent, the more they become vicious and try to repress people, the more it turns people against them and the less chance they have of ever holding onto power. They are just making it harder and harder for themselves while being intransigent and trying to force the fact that they must remain in power. 

FP: Speaking of Tsvangirai’s deceased wife, Susan, how do the investigations stand, and do you believe foul play was involved? 

RB: I, personally, definitely believe that foul play was involved. There is no doubt about it in my mind. But, again, you know, that just shows the greatness of a man like Morgan Tsvangirai. The people in the country of Zimbabwe come first. He knows full well what happened to his wife. But it makes us closer together as colleagues and makes you more determined. 

FP: Do you think Mugabe will ever be brought to justice? 

RB: I sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, hope so. Because one evil, evil man has destroyed a beautiful country that was the jewel of Africa. He’s destroyed it; [there are] millions of people in abject poverty and suffering, and it’s through his doing. So, at some stage, he’s accountable for that. Foreign Policy