Zimbabwe's continuing land contestation and the symbolisms of ex-farmer Roy Bennett's legal troubles

Oct 16, 2010

So Roy Bennet, MDC 'treasurer general' and deputy agriculture minister-designate in the new unity government has been arrested. First a standing treason charge that kept him in exile in South Africa for three years was revived. Many Zimbabwe opposition politicians over the years have dubiously been charged with treason, with the charges almost always then failing to stand up in court.

Then awkwardly, the treason charge was suddenly dropped and replaced with a charge of 'terrorism.' Whatever the charges preferred against Bennett, it remains to be seen what sort of evidence will be presented. But it is widely considered that the charges are false and little more than harassment
of an MDC official particularly hated by the ZANU-PF establishment.

Bennett was once a star commercial farmer, but one without the stereotypical reputation of the Rhodesian-style white farmer. He enjoyed good relations with the surrounding community for one, even once winning election to parliament in a pretty much all-black constituency.

He strongly resisted the take over of his farm at the height of the farm invasions. Unlike the situation with the disposession of many other white farmers, Bennett was supported in that resistance by many in the local community. That contradicted the Mugabe narrative of white farms being taken over in order to benefit a grateful black peasantry. That initial eagerness and gratitude was indeed the case amongst local communities in many parts of the country, especially in areas where the white farmers had bad  relations with those communities, which was far from unheard of.

So Bennett annoyed officialdom not only by his  strenuous resistance to the takeover of his farm, but by that local support as well. Then there was the additional 'insult' of his being elected to parliament, where he further earned more enemies by his outspokenness. When he pushed close Mugabe confidant and government minister Patrick Chinamasa to the floor during a row in parliament, the political guns were set against him. He was jailed for  for that un-parliamentary physical confrontation, lost his seat and then had treason charges made against him, causing him to flee to South Africa.

Bennet only returned to Zimbabwe in the last 10 days or so for the swearing in of the new unity government. Just last week there were media stories remarking in surprise how he had not been harassed or arrested on his return, despite the old treason charges still being outstanding.

Well, all that has changed with his arrest in the last 24 hours or so. What happened? What suddenly changed? What does all this mean?

I do not know the specific answers, but I don't mind sticking my neck out and speculating on the larger picture of what is happening to Bennett.

The unity government agreement signed between ZANU-PF and both MDC factions last year spells out that it accepts that as messy as the land reform effort was, it is 'irreversible.' Therefore efforts to fix it must use that as the take-off point.

But there are likely to be many ZANU-PF officials who got choice farms who must not be re-assured by this 'irreversibility' clause of the unity agreement, and live in dread of possiblytively losing their recently acquired farms. Likewise there must be many white farmers who continue to hope that the clause will be somehow set aside and that they can get back the farms from which they were chased. It is entirely reasonable to speculate that Bennett might well be one of the farmers harbouring such hopes.

So here we have at least two groups of political and economic actors closely watching the unity government unfold with clashing hopes and  fears. Of course it is not just the ZANU-PF fat cats who got the juiciest farms who are worried about losing them. We don't hear much about them from the white farmer- sympathising sections of 'the international media,' but the many thousands of ordinary Zimbabweans ( including MDC supporters)  who also got land would also be in an uprising against the new government if there was any suggestion to reverse the land reform, messy as it was.  But for my purposes here I am focusing on just the politically-connected fat cat beneficiaries of farms, and how their worries could at least partially explain Bennett's current troubles.

There is no way ZANU-PF would have entertained power-sharing with the MDC without the land reform irreversibility clause, that much is clear. This is for both reasons of genuine conviction in the rightness of land reform, despite its then having been bastardised, as well as for selfish interest amongst the fat cats who got the best developed, most choice farms. It is also clear that ZANU-PF would have further secured the idea of irreversibility by insisting on control of agriculture and land portfolios. MDC would have equally liked to have controlled them but understood that this was not a point on which Mugabe and ZANU-PF would budge.

In theory, with these built-in 'safeguards' the ZANU-PF fat cats should have felt fairly comfortable that their selfish land interests were secure. And yet they cannot be completely at ease because it seems clear that even without a 'reversal' of the land reform as such, there will likely be a shake-up of some sort, with those who have done nothing or little with their new farms possibly having to give them up. Even if they are just asked to share them, there is no guarantee that one will still hold on to the part of the farm with the bungalow, the barns and the swimming pool!

So many fat cats are probably still very worried about what the unity government means for them. This worry would be compounded by those who have not been accommodated in the cabinet or other parts of the new-look feeding trough. They may no longer have the political pull to hold on to their farms, and just at the time that political un-employment means they need those farms more than ever. If those farms had been merely weekend retreats before, they may now be the only source of livelihood for those who just have, or are about to become former fat cats.

Many of them have no skills beyond politics, "work" is a concept they are only hazily familiar with and they are becoming un-employed and un-connected in a situation of an economy on  its knees with no easy survival options. Certainly none as easy as those they have enjoyed by just being part of Mugabe's patronage system. Ironically, they may now be ready to get serious about farming for survival reasons, at the very time that they feel insecure about holding on to their farms because of their previous lack of farming seriousness when they were cushily employed in the political system!

So these still-powerful but now very jittery people would not have been re-assured or amused by the symbolism of new prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai  appointing, of all people, Roy Bennett to be deputy minister of agriculture. Despite his only being deputy to a ZANU-PF minister, this appointment must have symbolically been seen as extremely provocative by ZANU-PF fat cats. It would have revived the deep fears that whatever the terms of the unity agreement, the MDC's ultimate lands agenda is to "reverse the gains of the revolution," as the state media has accused for years.

Many of the ruling party fat cats, both those opposed to the unity government idea as well as those who might have been willing to take a wait-and-see attitude to it, must have seen Tsvangirai's appointment of a Bennett who is a lightning rod for them to be deputy minister of the 'emotive' portfolio of agriculture as simply being too much for them to take.

Their worry and sense of provocation would have been compounded by the news that soon after his arrival in Zimbabwe from his exile in South Africa, Bennett visited his old farm. It is entirely understandable that he would want to do so, whether or not he is hoping to get it back, but this must have been sen in many ZANU-PF circles as being more cheeky provocation by Bennett. There is little doubt in my mind that in these worried powerful circles the visit would have been explained as, "he went to inspect his old farm back in obvious hope of/preparation for moving back onto it."

This would have created rage and panic in those circles, even if the workers and surrounding communities who have seen that farm go to waste might welcome Bennett's return if it were somehow possible. And even if Bennett's visit was simply out of nostalgia rather than to prepare for an eventual hoped-for return to it, given all the foregoing, it was personally unwise for him, as the renewed harrassment of him proves. It was also  unwise in political terms for him as well as for Tsvangirai and the MDC. Undertaking the visit at such a tense and uncertain time in which many quarters in ZANU-PF would like nothing more than the unity government to fall apart was simply not smart, even if he had every right as a Zimbabwean to visit there.

Tsvangirai has made noises suggesting that rather than being orchestrated by Mugabe, Bennett's troubles are the responsibility of other parts of the ZANU-PF structure who are opposed to the power-sharing arrangement. This is not inconceivable. But if so, it would be interesting in suggesting that these quarters have openly broken ranks with their boss Mugabe in order to protect the interests they rightly or wrongly believe to be now threatened.

This would be an interesting and dangerous new twist in the rapidly evolving dynamics of this political arrangement. It is unprecedented for ZANU-PF ranks to go 'against' Mugabe in this way, if this is what is suggested by Tsvangirai's intimations of loose canons within the power structure being the ones to have acted against Bennett. And yet they likely also feel that they no longer have any obligation to be loyal and obedient to a Mugabe who they may feel is throwing them off the gravy train to fend for themselves at a particularly difficult time they are ill-equipped to survive.

But apart from the selfish reasons of threatened fat cats that might explain Bennett's travails, there are no doubt many other sectors in ZANU-PF who might 'genuinely' be affronted at the idea of a 'Rhodie' farmer being the MDC's choice as agriculture deputy minister, even one such as Bennett who is considered relatively 'enlightened' in the context of the stereotype. The perhaps 'innocent' symbolism meant by Tsvangiarai of putting an unquestionably accomplished farmer in this portfolio would have been read very differently in many ZANU-PF circles.

The man who for several days now has been the minister of finance, the MDC's Tendai Biti, until just about a week ago also had treason charges hanging over his head. Those charges were also widely believed to be nothing more than the now stock-in-trade tactics of harassment against influential Mugabe/ZANU-PF opponents. As with so many others who have faced these charges before, the courts threw them out, opening the way for Tsvangirai to appoint Biti to the finance portfolio a few days ago.

There is a good chance that the same thing will happen with Bennett. Whether acting with Mugabe's acquiescence or not, the ZANU-PF quarters concerned would have made their point for Bennett and the MDC to not be under any illusion about the degree of threatening change they can bring about, and he will then be released to take up his position.

But if it is considered by those quarters as simply un-acceptable that Bennett of all people occupy the deputy agriculture portfolio, he may continue to be in trouble unless and until Tsvangirai makes a more acceptable -to-ZANU-PF appointment to the position. If that is the real issue in question here, it may only be then that the charges against him are quietly dropped.

No matter how this particular drama involving Bennett plays out, there is litle doubt the explosive 'land issue' will be with us in one form or another for a long time to come.


(first published Feb 15 2009)


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