Bennett, with his supporters, after his acquittal of terrorism charges (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP)
Roy Leslie Bennet was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things. When the history of the struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe is written, his name will feature prominently in those accounts. He may have started out on the side of privilege, growing up as a young white man in racially segregated Rhodesia and served as a member of its coercive apparatus, but by the end, Bennett had transformed himself into a true hero of people. He had become a pillar of the democratic movement in Zimbabwe, admired and respected by his fellow citizens.
For me, one of the lessons from Bennett’s life is that it matters little how you start when you end well. The challenge for all of us mortals is to learn from our past in order to become better people and to contribute as best as we can to the greater commonwealth of humanity.
There was a unique bond of love and respect between Bennett and the multitudes who followed him, from his farmworkers in Chimanimani to the MDC faithful. He was affectionately known as “Pachedu” which loosely translated refers to a pact of brotherhood and togetherness. It signified the unique and very intimate relationship that existed between Bennett and his supporters. It was a deep relationship symbolised by an unwritten pact which could not be broken. He was indeed one of the most popular MDC leaders.
A white man who had an impeccable command of the local Shona language, Roy Bennett’s ability and willingness to use the vernacular endeared him to many ordinary Zimbabweans. Zimbabwe emerged from colonial Rhodesia which was racially segregated. The idea of a white person speaking Shona, one of the local languages always fascinates people who do not expect them to know the language. In fact, his supreme command of the language and readiness to use it shamed many Zimbabwean elites who shun their own language to the point that they regard it as too lowly for their children to learn and speak.
For me, as symbolised in part by language and more by his work with fellow Zimbabweans in the democratic movement, Bennett reminded me of the potential that Zimbabwe holds if its multiple races and cultures could actually break the barriers that exist between them and work together. Bennett was part of a small group of white Zimbabweans who joined the democratic movement and demonstrated that whites do still have a place in Zimbabwe. There was a period after the end of the special voting quotas for white at the end of the 1980s when it seemed like white Zimbabweans had withdrawn from the arena of active politics. Much of that changed in the post-2000 era and figures like Trudy Stevenson, David Coltart, Eddie Cross, Ian Kay, Kerrie Kay and Roy Bennett became prominent and visible faces in Zimbabwean politics. The way they were accepted and the popular support they enjoyed was testament to the fact that Zimbabweans were ready to embrace good leaders, their race and past notwithstanding. This is a legacy that Bennett and his peers represent and it must continue, hopefully attracting a new crop of non-black Zimbabweans, and reminding them that it is their country too and they have a role to play.
The treatment of Bennett by the state demonstrated the callousness of the Mugabe regime and the extent to which the political and judicial systems were compromised. His Chimanimani farm, Charleswood Estate, was literally ransacked in acts of political recrimination. Bennett also exposed the vindictive character of the Mugabe regime. This was evident in a bizarre case in which Bennett was jailed by the Mugabe regime in a matter which should have attracted no more than a fine.
In that matter, Bennett was accused of pushing the then Minister of Justice, Patrick Chinamasa who had insulted him in parliament by making certain racist remarks. Parliament sat as a special court and in a clear case of pre-determined justice, swiftly convicted and sentenced him to a term of 15 months’ imprisonment. Bennett’s reaction may have been rash in the heat of the moment but his conduct certainly did not warrant 15 months’ imprisonment. The entire proceedings were a sham. Even the Attorney General initially conceded that the sentence was excessive and disproportionate but this concession was withdrawn mysteriously halfway through the hearing. It was probably down to political pressure.
Bennett’s attempts to challenge the decision and sentence in the Supreme Court were unsuccessful. The then Chief Justice, Godfrey Chidyausiku admitted that the 15 months’ imprisonment was severe, but went on to hold that it was not grossly disproportionate to the offence. The tone of Chidyausiku’s judgment made him appear like the aggrieved party. He dismissed Bennett’s complaints against the racist comments made by Chinamasa saying they were “common” and Bennett should not have been surprised or insulted by them. It was an appalling judgment which demonstrated Chidyausiku’s bias in politically-related matters.
Justice Sandura provided the lone voice of reason and moderation. He pointed out that the sentence was grossly disproportionate and outrageous given that it was just a common assault. He wrote, “In my view, no one could possibly have thought that the offence committed by Bennett, which was essentially a common assault, deserved a term of imprisonment. Any term of imprisonment imposed for such an offence would be a sentence which is so excessive as to shock or outrage contemporary standards of decency.”
These words summed up the absurdity with which Bennett had been treated by the state. But the Supreme Court failed him and in so doing, it also failed the rule of law and justice. There was no doubt that Bennett was being punished not for the common assault by for his politics. It was a clear case of abuse of power and breakdown of the rule of law. Looking back, the case also sums up the harsh treatment which Bennett endured at the hands of the Mugabe regime.
Politics of hate
Bennett also exposed the face of hate of the Mugabe regime by excluding him from the Inclusive Government. When the Inclusive Government was formed in 2009, Tsvangirai had nominated Bennett as a Deputy Minister of Agriculture. Mugabe would have none of it. Not only did he refuse to swear-in Bennett, Mugabe had him detained on charges of terrorism. The treatment of Bennett almost caused a breakdown of the Inclusive Government after Tsvangirai walked out in October 2009.
Still, Mugabe refused to relent. Bennett was cleared by the courts but Mugabe remained adamant. And so, Bennett was the Deputy Minister who never occupied office, all because Mugabe did not like him. The views of his power-sharing partner did not matter. Tsvangirai may have been the Mugabe regime’s prime target, but it was Bennett whom it hated the most.
The Bennett exclusion from the Inclusive Government at the hands of an intransigent Mugabe also exposed the powerlessness of the Prime Minister and showed that the MDC was a junior partner in the Inclusive Government. Basically, Mugabe vetoed Tsvangirai’s appointment of Bennett because each party was entitled to select its own nominees to government. The fact that Mugabe refused to appoint Bennett despite him being the MDC’s choice sealed any doubts as to who between the coalition partners had the lion’s share of power.
Farewell Pachedu …
Of all the people who should have seen a truly new Zimbabwe, Bennett was among the top cadres. Few people suffered more at the hands of the Mugabe regime. Sadly, the hand of fate had other plans. His death in a helicopter crash far away from his home country is truly tragic. Bennett and his wife, Heather will be deeply mourned not just by their immediate family but by the broader family of democrats in Zimbabwe and around the world. He was dedicated to the cause even though the government hated and rejected him. The rich legacy they left should be celebrated and emulated. For those of us who worked with him, it was a privilege and honour.
Go well, Pachedu! When you made vows with Heather, you both would have said till death do us part. But you have beaten death, because you have chosen to go together, hand in hand. Rest in peace, Pachedu and Heather. You ran your mile and you ran it well. The struggle will continue.
(Roy Bennett is a former Treasurer General of the MDC and a former MP in the House of Parliament in Zimbabwe. He was one of the closest allies of veteran opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. He died together with his wife in a helicopter crash in the US on 17 January 2018)