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The man who stood up to Mugabe

Zimbabwean opposition politician Roy Bennett goes on trial for treason.

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.