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comeback angers President
for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR)
Reports: Zimbabwe Elections No 16, 17-Mar-05)
By Dzikamayi Chiyausiku in Mutare
March 17, 2005
enraged by court’s decision to allow jailed white MP to contest
Mugabe has reacted with alarm to the most remarkable political comeback
story of Zimbabwe’s parliamentary election campaign.
Roy Bennett, a
white farmer and the highly popular member of parliament for Chimanimani,
who is currently serving a one-year jail sentence with hard labour,
has been given the green light to contest his seat from his prison
Bennett, who represents
a largely rural and nearly 100 per cent black constituency in the
mountains of the same name in eastern Zimbabwe, was jailed after
he charged across the floor of parliament last November and shoved
Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa to the ground.
just subjected Bennett to a torrent of racist abuse and called his
ancestors thieves and murders. As he fell on top of the justice
minister, who emerged unbruised, Anti-Corruption Minister Didymus
Mutasa joined the fray and kicked Bennett in the ribs.
The MP for the
opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC – who was born, raised
and educated in Zimbabwe - said afterwards, "One’s not proud
of it. But I am a person. I have feelings and after the vehement
personal [and] racial attack that Chinamasa was making against me,
I saw red and reacted. I was insulted on numerous previous occasions
when my workers were being killed, raped and beaten."
In October, parliament
voted 53 to 42 to punish the 48-year-old MP by imprisoning him for
a year for an offence that would normally have merited a small fine
in a normal criminal court.
Since then, he
has been sharing a 3.5 by 2.5 metre prison cell with 14 other inmates.
His immediate sleeping partner is dying of AIDS and vomits throughout
the night. Meanwhile, the speaker of parliament, Emmerson Mnanagagwa,
has overruled efforts to have Bennett’s sentence dismissed by an
ordinary court of law.
Despite his imprisonment,
the people of Chimanimani have asked Bennett to stand again as their
candidate. And after a desperate legal battle, this week the country’s
new Electoral Court, in its first decision, upheld Bennett’s right
to contest the election from his cell.
The move has enraged
President Mugabe, who has become accustomed to obedience from the
country’s courts. On March 17, he described Judge Tendai Uchena’s
decision as "madness" and said his government would appeal
against the ruling.
understand the court’s decision. We can’t be held to ransom by a
man who is in prison. That is absolute nonsense," he said.
And in an ominous
declaration, Mugabe told his supporters to ignore the court ruling.
"Proceed as if nothing has happened," said the head of
state, who has a record of ignoring judicial decisions and ruling
Judge Uchena further
angered the president by postponing the Chimanimani poll for a month
to give Bennett’s constituency manager, James Mukwaya, and his team
a decent period in which to campaign.
court verdict, Mukwaya said, "Roy Bennett is a man of the people.
He is white in complexion but there is no difference between [him]
and the blacks in Zimbabwe.
"He did not
choose himself to stand as the candidate of Chimanimani in 2000.
It was the people who went to him and asked him to stand as their
MP. And during his tenure in office in the past five years, he showed
the people of Chimanimani how an MP should work."
For the first
20 years of Zimbabwe’s independence, Chimanimani was a stronghold
of Mugabe’s ruling ZANU PF party. But as economic conditions deteriorated,
Bennett - who had a record of close cooperation with local cultivators
and spoke fluent Shona - was approached to stand as the MDC candidate.
He was elected in 2000 by 11,410 votes to 8,072, a remarkable victory
in a general election that most international observers had declared
neither free nor fair.
has been a mixed blessing for him. In the past four years he has
suffered a number of attacks with a clear political motivation.
Just before polling
day in 2000, ZANU PF activists - operating under the direction of
the feared Central Intelligence Organisation, CIO - invaded Bennett’s
cattle and coffee farm, Charleswood. They forced Bennett’s 42-year-old
wife, Heather, and their 350 employees to attend a ZANU PF political
rally where they were made to dance and sing songs in praise of
The pregnant Mrs
Bennett was threatened with death, and forced to the ground with
a spear held to her throat. "That night the pain began,"
she said. "I lost the baby. It was a boy." Several farm
employees were beaten with iron rods and axe handles.
back more than 300 kilometres from Harare to be told his family
would be killed unless he withdrew his MDC candidacy. He refused.
He was immediately served with a government notice to vacate his
farm, and the Zimbabwe army began occupying it.
The soldiers moved
into Bennett’s farmhouse and began hacking cattle and game animals
to death. They refused the owner access to his coffee crops which
were in a special government-designated Export Processing Zone and
earned more than a million US dollars a year in foreign exchange.
More than 100 tonnes of coffee were destroyed, together with the
painstaking preparations for another three years of planting.
Local people were
outraged by the assault on Bennett’s family and his workers. They
sent a n’anga - a traditional healer, or witchdoctor - to cleanse
and protect the farmhouse, the farm buildings and a tourist lodge
that had been built with foreign investment in the nearby mountains.
a blessing or curse from a n’anga is no laughing matter. Of the
fifteen ZANU PF activists who were in the first invasion wave on
Charleswood, 13 are now dead. And in May 2004, the district administrator
- a key political figure who organised the assault - was found dead
in his shower.
Bennett, who has
not set foot on his farm for nearly five years, has taken the case
to court eight times. On each occasion he has won court orders confirming
his ownership of Charleswood and his right - and that of his employees
- to be left in peace.
But the officials
involved have simply ignored these rulings. Two of Bennett’s workers,
Stephen Tonera and Shemmy Chimbaraa, have been shot dead by soldiers
and others have been beaten and raped.
who will now campaign for her husband in Chimanimani, said, "Roy’s
enduring popularity is one of the things that infuriates the government.
He defies everything they try to portray as happening. He’s a white
farmer liked by labour forces."
And from Mutoko
Prison, 145 kilometres north of Harare, Bennett issued a statement
vowing never to give up, even if it costs him his life.
"I know my
constituency is 100 per cent behind me," he said. "I was
humbly elected by the people of Chimanimani to represent them in
parliament. I knew full well the ramifications of taking on a repressive
ZANU PF regime, as did the people who voted me in.
"We as a
district have been targeted and harassed for our beliefs. I am not
seen as a white commercial farmer but as a fellow Zimbabwean, and
as long as the people want me to represent them for national change
and good governance, I will never give in.
of intimidation, oppression or threats will work. There are some
things in life worth taking a stand for."
Chiyausiku is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Mutare.
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