The Roy Bennett Story

  Roy Bennett, the former farmer thrown into a filthy prison by Mugabe for pushing a fellow Zimbabwean MP. Tom Leonard meets him.

If Bob Geldof was casting around for an African hero, a true exemplar of courage in adversity in that troubled continent, he probably wouldn't spare Roy Bennett a second glance. White, middle-class, articulate and well-nourished, he hardly fits the bill as an embodiment of the starving, huddled masses..

At home in the Chimanimani region of south-east Zimbabwe, where subsistence farmers eke out a living on the border with Mozambique, local people call him "Pachedu" ("one of us"). As many of his fellow white farmers gave up and left, Mr Bennett and his wife, Heather, stayed on at the request of their black countrymen to fight the Mugabe regime. It was a decision that led to years of intimidation and harassment, the Bennetts' ordeal providing one of the most shocking stories to emerge about the misrule of their country.

A month ago today, a very different looking Roy Bennett - long-haired, bearded and four stone lighter - was released from Chikurubi Prison, after eight months' hard labour in conditions he describes as "how I imagined hell". His offence - other than to defy the regime and be the only white farmer MP - was to have pushed Mugabe's justice minister, in a heated exchange in the Zimbabwe parliament.

Today, Mr Bennett is in London, recuperating with Heather, 43, who is half-Scottish - on holiday but also anxious to highlight the crisis in his country. "I'm a Zimbabwean. I have no other country," he says. "I make no apologies for being white. I can't be held for any injustices in the past, but I can play a part in the future - to bring transparent and honest representation to the people." In 1999, Roy Bennett, a third-generation Zimbabwean, was just a coffee farmer. A fluent Shona speaker, he set up various community projects and advised subsistence farmers, prompting local chiefs to persuade him to run for Parliament. After unsuccessfully applying to be a candidate for Mugabe's Zanu PF party, he stood successfully for the newly formed opposition Movement for Democratic Change in the 2000 elections.

Two months later, while he was away in Harare, so-called Zanu PF "war veterans" descended on his farm and claimed it as their own. They beat up Mr Bennett's workers and when Heather intervened, they turned on her. Although four months pregnant, she had a macheté held at her throat and was made to dance and sing Zanu PF songs in the rain. Two workers were killed in front of her. When she finally escaped, she had miscarried. The government stole everything they owned, including their 7,000- acre farm, 800 cattle and 107 tons of coffee.

He left farming and started a panel-beating business in Harare. In parliament, he remained a thorn in the government's side. Last year, during a debate on the controversial land reform programme, Patrick Chinamasa, the justice minister, branded Mr Bennett's father and grandfather "thieves and murderers", prompting him to storm across the chamber and push him to the floor.

Flouting its own rules, parliament sentenced him to eight months in jail without a proper trial. He spent his sentence in three prisons, where conditions in the cells he shared with as many as 49 others were "absolutely horrific".

On his arrival at Harare Central jail on October 28, he was forced to strip naked and dress in prison clothes, before being taken to the cell. "As we got to the door, they told me to strip off the clean clothes they had given me and they threw me filthy, torn prison garments with excreta and lice on them," he says. When his lawyers came to see him two days later, the authorities tried to make him take off the old clothes and put on the new ones, but he refused.

In jail, prisoners slept on concrete floors with just one dirty, lice-infested blanket. They were given nothing to wash with and the food was three cups of gruel and vegetable soup a day. Roy Bennett didn't see meat for three months. Although, in private, some tried to help him and allowed his wife to bring in supplies, in public, the guards did their best to break him. He was forced to kneel for long periods and given back-breaking labour. A favourite punishment was to make him run 200 metres to and from the river carrying two four-gallon cans of water for the vegetable garden. Beatings were routine.

Prisoners, mostly just petty thieves, were escorted into a cell out of sight, and beaten on the soles of their feet so the marks would not be visible. Some were crippled. "They would force you to lie on your stomach, lift your feet up and beat you on the soles," says Mr Bennett. "I refused to go into a cell, so they would have had to beat me publicly. "As most prisoners had no visitors to bring them fruit, soap or toothpaste, they had to obtain them by prostituting themselves to the long-sentence prisoners."

And yet some still offered their meagre supplies to Mr Bennett. "It was very touching. They did it because they felt I had sacrificed everything for them." Prison made Roy Bennett more determined than ever to oust Mugabe. It also confirmed his Christian beliefs.
Adversity brings out the best in people, he says. "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."

His wife, who led the campaign for his release, ran his business affairs and even stood in his place in the general election, has been "absolutely amazing", he says. "She stood for parliament and did things she thought she'd never do. She's a very shy and gentle person but she drew from inner depths." They have a son and a daughter - Charles, 20, who is studying at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, and Casey, 18 - but the loss of their unborn child has affected both of them. Although they had planned to have two more children, Roy Bennett immediately had a vasectomy. "Under the circumstances, we'll never be able to give children the attention we should be giving them. We've got far greater commitments to the country and the people around us." He adds: "I'd have loved to have had more children." No longer an MP (his wife lost because the vote was rigged, he says), he says), he is keen to get back into politics. As Zimbabwe heads into meltdown, he is optimistic that Mugabe's days are numbered, and that the truth - that his land reforms had nothing to do with colonialism and everything to do with racial hatred - is finally getting through to other African leaders. "I believe we are heading towards a free and fair election in Zimbabwe, and democracy." Zimbabwe will "implode" unless Mugabe
negotiates, he insists. "He's totally propped up by the military. If they cannot access salaries, if the whole country grinds to a halt and there's no food or fuel, they'll turn on him. I don't think he's that stupid that he doesn't realise that will happen."

But why, at a time when the West happily brings down tyrannical regimes elsewhere, is it taking so long in Zimbabwe?

The other African nations "are living in a colonial past and use that as an excuse ", he says, but adds quickly that the developed world is just as much to blame. "One of the most racist things you can do is to refer to Africa as the Third World, to make excuses for despots to get away with tyranny because of a colonial past. This whole racial bullshit is a thing of the past. We are
people moving ahead in a global village where we are accountable for our actions and accountable to our people. He says "The aid you're pumping in through those corrupt governments never gets through. It's gobbled up. It's Mercs for jerks."