The man who stood up to Mugabe

HARARE, Zimbabwe — With his dapper suits and black-dyed mini-moustache, President Robert Mugabe has come to represent the image of the modern-day dictator.

His nemesis is a heavy-set, plain-talking, pink-skinned accidental politician who runs a panel-beating business and greets visitors cradling Vickie, his dachshund.

Arguably the most popular man of any race in Zimbabwe, 52-year-old Roy Bennett has begun a court ordeal in the capital, Harare, in which he faces life in jail for allegedly plotting to overthrow Mugabe in 2006.

Currently on bail, the former farmer is accused of buying $5,000 worth of arms to carry out "acts of insurgency, sabotage, banditry or terrorism.’’ He emphatically denies the charge and says he is eager to take up his job as deputy agriculture minister in the country’s 11-month-old power-sharing government.

The state's case was substantially undermined when the prosecution's key witness testified Thursday that state agents  tortured him until he falsely implicated Bennett.

Mugabe, 85, has a track record of putting his political rivals on trial for treason. Bennett, who was first arrested in February, is the 10th. The color of his skin and his track record make him the most emblematic.

"I am a native through generations of history that was no choice of my own," says the senator whose northern Irish grandfather, a mining company assayer, settled in the British colony of Rhodesia in the late 1800s. "Barring a few generations, our history is no different from that of Australia or the United States, only there, the settlers killed the local inhabitants. Rhodesian settlers built roads and hospitals and, in the space of 150 years, the population expanded from 350,000 to 14 million."

That population, repressed by the British colonizers and then by the white rule of Ian Smith's Rhodesia, fought a bitter war to gain independence in 1980. After 20 years, Mugabe had entrenched his government which became marked by corruption, human rights abuses and declinging services. That is what gave rise, 10 years ago, to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) — now Zimbabwe's main opposition party of which Bennett is treasurer-general.

The court case of the former farmer is based on a confession from a gun merchant, Mike Hitschmann, whose own trial in 2006 was dismissed when it was ruled that the testimony was obtained by torture. Observers who have been in court since Bennett’s trial started in November describe a confused attorney-general leading a case which is akin to a plot-less film script in which plausible characters have been cast.

At the December congress of Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), the president once again hammered home his objections to Bennett: "This is your country and not for whites. Not the Bennetts. They are settlers, even if they were born here they are offspring of settlers.’’

Bennett was a policeman before going into farming in 1979. "I served five years while the liberation war was on. I attended many murders. The so-called liberation fighters would go into communal areas and kill black Rhodesian government employees. That was their way of forcing people to support them. Seeing the repression and how the people were getting a hammering from both sides, gave me a strong affinity with them,’’ he said.

Bennett built from scratch a 740-acre fair-trade coffee farm in Chimanimani in the east of the country. Before May 2000, when Charleswood Estate was invaded under Zanu-PF’s ruinous land resettlement campaign, the farm was a hub of empowerment.

"We had field days and trial plots. Once you can move people from subsistence to economic farming, they are empowered and cannot be controlled.’’ Today, the farm is derelict. Bennett and his wife Heather, aged 47, run a panel-beating business in Harare.

He says he never wanted to go into politics. "Before the 2000 elections, the people came and asked me to get involved. The elders and I travelled up to Harare to see what (now Prime Minister) Morgan Tsvangirai had to say for himself. We decided on the MDC.’’

In 2000, Bennett became one of four whites to win parliamentary seats for the MDC. His Manicaland constituency had been staunchly Zanu-PF for 20 years. For the seat to have gone to a white farmer was an insult to Mugabe. For it to have fallen to a "settler’’ with an "African’’ consultative style was even worse.

In 2004, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa announced in parliament that Charleswood was to be resettled. Bennett marched across the floor and pushed Chinamasa to the ground. He also hit out at the anti-corruption minister before being ejected and jailed for 15 months. That is when Bennett became the most popular man in Zimbabwe.

Author Heidi Holland believes the popular and plebeian Bennett is as unfathomable as he is abhorrent to the snobbish Zimbabwean president.

"Mugabe is a black Englishman,’’ said Holland who interviewed Mugabe two years ago. "Like all colonials, Robert Mugabe grew up believing in British excellence. But he also had a lifetime of denigrating racism embedded in his psyche. Mugabe loves cricket and serves tea at the right time. His Catholic education — thanks to an influential Anglo-Irish headmaster — means that he identifies more readily with an educated, titled class of Briton than with the descendants of working class farmers who came to own vast tracts of land taken from Africans by Cecil Rhodes,’’ said Holland, author of "Dinner With Mugabe."

Those close to the case say it is the "black Englishman’’ in Mugabe that compels him to take Bennett to court — rather than get rid of him through cruder means — because, said one, "however non-existent the evidence might be, process has to be seen to be done.’’

Lawyers say even Zimbabwe’s flawed legal system should clear Bennett. The move would crown the former white farmer’s standing as the nemesis of Mugabe’s fossilized racialism. But even if Bennett goes back to jail, he will be admired by millions of Zimbabweans for the standing up to Mugabe.