Bringing some perspective to the issue of Roy Bennett

Oct 31, 2010

There is no question that politician and former farmer Roy Bennett has been hounded and persecuted by the Zimbabwean government.

He was unceremoniously kicked off a farm he had built up over many years. His supporters believe he was unfairly jailed for getting the better of a government minister in a scuffle in parliament. He was accused of what are widely believed to be trumped-up weapons and other charges. And he was selected by his political party to be deputy minister of agriculture in the current coalition government but president Robert Mugabe has steadfastly refused to swear him in. In the last week he has returned to exile in South Africa, where he had returned from about two years ago on the formation of the MDC-ZANU PF government.
So he has had a very rough time before and since the formation of the coalition government. Naturally he has become a cause celebre for his MDC party and for many Zimbabweans who hope for a new political day. To some he is a symbol of how despite the coalition government not much has fundamentally changed in power relations in Zimbabwe, with ZANU-PF and Mugabe still firmly holding the upper hand. 

Having said all this, there are many aspects of Bennett's saga that have been lost in the perhaps understandable emotionalism of the MDC at the unfairness of how he has been treated.

1. It was the MDC's right to nominate him to the post of deputy minister of agriculture in the coalition government in early 2009. But it was naive of the party to believe that Mugabe and his ZANU-PF would agree to this. It is not just that Bennett represented the old farming order Mugabe & Co had just deposed, but that he was a particularly outspoken one. The 'land question' has been Mugabe & Co's central political plank for a decade now, and there was no way they would allow someone like Bennett to be the second in command of the responsible ministry.

2. There is no record of deputy ministers having much power or influence in Zimbabwe. The hope of some that if Mugabe had agreed to appoint Bennett to be deputy agriculture minister he would have substantially influenced what did or didn't happen with regard to land reform was naive in the extreme. There would have been any number of ways to keep him firmly out of the loop of any real decision-making or influence. This should now be particularly obvious in light of how little real power Bennett's party boss and prime minister in the coalition government, Tsvangirai has been allowed to wield.            

None of this may be fair, but it is just reflects the realpolitiks of today's Zimbabwe. Bennett as deputy agric minister could not have been any more of a 'savior' of Zimbabwe's white farmers than MDC prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai has been.

Having nominated him for the post, obviously the MDC would not want to be seen to back down in the face of Mugabe's implacable resistance to appointing him. So Bennett officially remains Zimbabwe's longest-serving 'minister-designate.' Yet if there was once any hope that he would every occupy that position it must be clear now that he will not do that in any government in which Mugabe and ZANU-PF retain effective control as at present.

There are countless lessons of tactics for the MDC in the sorry saga of Roy Bennett. Whether the MDC has learned those tactical lessons for future priority-setting, choice of battles and how to fight them is a different thing entirely.


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