Roy Bennett is a rough diamond - he is very much a self made man who left school early and came from a poor background. He worked hard and eventually created his lifetime ambition - a farm in the Chimanimani Mountains. For those who do not know the area, it is approached by a road that goes through dry and harsh land in the Save valley up to a range of mountains that straddle the eastern highlands and then you travel down through lush, well watered land to the village of Chimanimani. Here you break out of the hills and there in front of you is a magnificent range of rocky mountains straddling the border with Mozambique.
It is a very beautiful sight and in the sweeping valley that lies between the Village and the mountains is a stretch of country that would rival any other place in the world.
A decade after independence, Roy got all his resources together, borrowed some money and he bought Charleswood Estate. Not an outstanding bit of farmland - it only had a few hundred hectares of arable land, but it was where he wanted to live and make a living. Before he bought the farm he was given a certificate of "no interest" by the Ministry of Lands, which confirmed they did not require the land for resettlement.
Roy had married Heather and they had two children - a boy and a girl. Roy and Heather worked hard. Roy, being the kind of man he is, did everything he could to ensure that his entry to the community was acceptable. He visited the local Chief and said that he would work with the local community. He recognized that he could not prosper if his neighbors did not do so as well. The result was the slow creation of a coffee farm with cattle on the rough grazing and a lodge to exploit the local tourist potential. He worked to get the local peasant farmers to join him in the coffee project and extended to them credit and know how. Eventually he built a coffee mill on the farm and established a market for local coffee beans in Europe.
In 1998 he was asked by the people to stand for Parliament to represent the community. Asked by the local peasant farmers - not the handful of local commercial farmers and timber companies. He accepted and was duly nominated to run under the banner of the only party operating effectively at the time - Zanu PF. However when MDC was formed in 1999, the people asked him to switch sides and to run for the new party. He investigated MDC and eventually agreed. MDC accepted him into their ranks and in 2000 he ran against the Zanu PF candidate who had taken his place, beating him by a huge margin.
It was the start of a war against Roy in every respect.
He was an early target for the illegal farm invasions and demands that he gives up his land for "resettlement". He fought back hard and was given the full support of the people in the District. His own staff supported him - several with their lives. Heather had a miscarriage after a violent incident on the farm and the family began a three-year fight to hold onto what was theirs by law. It should be noted that the Courts who consistently ruled supported Roy in this protracted fight in his favor.
It was to no avail and this year he was eventually forcibly evicted from the farm - his life's work. He lost everything he owned in this exercise - the farm, all his equipment, vehicles, the coffee mill, 350 hectares of coffee, and several hundred tonnes of raw coffee beans and over 800 head of beef cattle. The combined value of these losses is almost impossible to estimate - the land and buildings, perhaps Z$3 billion, the cattle, at least Z$1,6 billion, the coffee operation at least another Z$4 billion. Add in the incidentals and you could come to a total of Z$10 billion. That is about US$1,7 million.
His 350 staff and their families were evicted and are today destitute and living in an informal squatter camp. His out growers in the local peasant-farming district are without guidance or credit and have lost their market outlets in Europe. A State controlled company has stolen the coffee, cattle and other moveable assets and is trying to run the farm. The lodge is derelict.
Roy and his wife moved to a rented property outside Harare but even there they faced harassment and intimidation. They were forced to move several times and experienced further losses in the process. Roy continued to represent his constituency and to secure development funds for the absolute poor in the area. He rebuilt an irrigation scheme destroyed by a cyclone in 2002 and he helped many individual families. When the time came for him to be renominated by the people for the elections scheduled for March 2005 - he received a unanimous nomination and was honored by the local community with a "totem". A symbol of his acceptance in the community and a rare gesture.
In Parliament he steadfastly stood up against the lawlessness and thuggery of Zanu PF. His fluent knowledge of Shona made him a formidable debater and to say that he was hated and feared is not to put it too strongly. In a speech to the House the Minister of Justice said that Roy was a "thief" and that his forefathers had robbed the community. Faced with this slander and coming after the years of harassment and violence directed against him and his family and his community at large, Roy's restraint broke, he leapt over the seat in front of him and strode over to the Minister and pushed him - knocking him down in the process. Another Zanu Minister (Mutasa) a nasty bit of work, came up behind Roy and kicked him - Roy turned and knocked him down and then left the building.
Now a committee of Parliament has sat and sent Roy to Prison for 15 months with hard labor. It means he will loose his seat in the House and his right to run as a candidate next year if the MDC fights the election. It leaves his wife and two children without a breadwinner and alone in a hostile environment for the next year at least.
If this had been an ordinary case of violence heard by a Magistrate, Roy could not have been given a fine of more than Z$8000 (US$1.00). This, like the treason charges against Morgan Tsvangirai, are purely political acts designed to hinder the MDC's ability to fight the next election. There is no justice in this act and there are no valid grounds for this decision.
This is just another sign that Zanu PF has run out of ideas and is desperate and feels pressed against the wall politically. The incident with COSATU also points in this direction. In Prison Roy will be regarded as a hero - which he is and when we eventually win this struggle, you can be sure the prisons will be packed with those who have flaunted the law in defense of their own crimes. People who look at this incident should not lose sight of the fact that there have been over 400 political murders in this country since the war on Roy began - not one has been prosecuted and none of these culprits have been brought to book.
Eddie Cross Bulawayo
November 1st 2004