FORMER Zimbabwe white farmer and a victim of the fast track land reform programme Ben Freeth (BF) has poured his heart out on what former white commercial farmers went through at the hands of war veterans. This comes after a South African Supreme Court of Appeal overturned an earlier High Court ruling that could see Zimbabwe shelling R2 billion (US$126 million) in compensation to former commercial white farmers whose land was violently taken in 2000. Freeth who is now the former commercial farmers’ spokesperson had an interview with our chief reporter Sydney Kawadza (SK). Below are excerpts of the interview:
SK: Let’s recap and talk about the land reform programme and how it affected the commercial farmers in Zimbabwe. Can you share with us what you would say the Zimbabwean government did wrong?
BF: I think it was clear in February 2000, when we had that referendum and then within two years after that referendum result, which the ruling party lost, we experienced the beginning of land invasions and violence. People were getting killed, beaten and crops destroyed. It was absolute chaos! It was brutal!
We would go to the police and they would tell us that there was nothing that they could do. We got court orders but the police defied them. We went to the High Court; we went to the Supreme Court but realised that the rule of law had gone from Zimbabwe.
SK: But most people would argue that farmers were involved in opposition politics. The case where farmers were caught on camera writing cheques to Morgan Tsvangirai the then opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader?
BF: There was a big deal made from farmers who supported the opposition party but in an ordinary country, democracy is allowed to prevail. There was nothing illegal in writing cheques to the opposition parties but we realised there was no democracy. The ruling party was out to destroy the opposition. We had a couple of farmers in the Chegutu District, for example, Pete Henderson had an opposition rally at his farm and that was probably the last opposition rally in the last 20 years to be held on a commercial farm.
SK: How many farmers were affected by the land reform programme and how many were killed?
BF: Thousands were getting death threats and a death threat is a serious thing but in terms of actual deaths, I remember the first victim was Dave Stevens. He went to seek refuge at a police station but got abducted from the station. So we realised there was no protection from the police force. Then I remember Martin Odds who tried to defend himself when a bunch of people came to his gate armed with guns. He was shot in the leg, retreated into the house and tried to defend himself. He lasted for about four hours.
The police had put a roadblock to stop any neighbours to come for help. Another farmer had a plane and he flew over to see what was going on but after four hours he was killed. There were four snipper positions put up around the house. We got a forensic guy and those positions were found. This was a hit to make us realise that there was no law to protect us. In fact, the State was ready to kill us if we tried to defend ourselves. And that had a huge psychological effect on everyone.
SK: You have been engaged in a protracted legal battle in the Zimbabwean courts and ended up at the Sadc Tribunal. How was that journey for you personally as a farmer also trying to find justice for other farmers?
BF: It has been an interesting journey. I have a strong faith in God. I believe in justice, I believe in righteousness and I believe in trying to defend people who are being made criminals for living in their homes and doing the only profession that they know. So when the CFU abandoned the courts, there weren’t a lot of us. We had a case that the CFU took in 2000 and the Supreme Court was invaded, the judges had to run for their lives. Those judges were then forced into retirement. When, eventually, in 2005 they changed the constitution, that brought in Amendment No. 17 of the constitution, which basically confirmed the Land Acquisition Act that any farmer who is still on his land which has been listed for acquisition, whether there has been any legal process, just the listing in the Government Gazette, was enough to say you are staying illegally on a farm. Anyway, we went to the Supreme Court in 2006 and we had a hearing the following year. We knew we would lose because all the judges had been given farms.
Within a week of our hearing in the Supreme Court, I bumped into another lawyer in the street and she said to me, “Have you heard about this court, the Sadc Tribunal?” I said no! I got hold of the advocate in South Africa and said this was interesting. It was something being set up by Sadc to be the court of last resort. They gave us an opportunity to go to the Sadc Tribunal and my father-in-law was getting old and was like a death sentence. The Sadc Tribunal in October 2007 gave us an interim relief.
Everyone was clear that the Sadc Tribunal was properly established and all the protocols had been signed by the Heads of State and it was a bona fide court. Our workers were as badly traumatised as were we. When we got back to the Sadc Tribunal, our date was in mid-July, so it was a little bit after the (presidential-run-off) elections.
About two weeks before our date, they started beating up various people who were going to the Sadc Tribunal and started intimidating people like Matt Rogers who were my friends. They then came for us and abducted my father-in-law, mother-in-law and myself and they took us to a torture camp. By God’s Grace, survived that night.
SK: So what keeps you going?
BF: It is just the belief that when there is no justice, when there is lawlessness, when there is chaos in a nation, everyone suffers. Obviously, at that time, we were at the receiving end of a lot of issues. But it is this belief that we have to stand for what is right. To answer your question I guess it is just devotion to continuing to stand for justice. To continue to stand for what we believe is right.
SK: Financially, how have you managed to cover all these cases over the years, from 2000 up to this day when you have also won a case in the Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa?
BF: It has been amazing. People and our lawyers have been incredible. They have done a lot of their work pro bono. They believed in what they were doing and they see what they are doing for the future of the country. And then we have other people all over the world, their hearts are still here and they want to see Zimbabwe coming right in the future for everyone so that we can progress as a nation. There has been a lot of goodwill from people outside the country.
SK: Are you still on the farm?
BF: It was a productive farm and we used to have the Agritex guys and other people coming to the farm and bringing people for learning. It was a diverse farm. The main income was from fruits which we exported. We had traditional crops as well; maize, cowpeas and sunflowers. My father-in-law was a great conservationist and part of the farm had Mopani trees. We had about 500 hundred wild animals including giraffe, sable, water buick, eland, impala, zebra, wildebeest and among others. We also had a safari lodge on the farm.
SK: And all these have been destroyed?
BF: Unfortunately, all the animals have been killed. The safari lodge has been burnt down. The house was burnt and some of our workers’ houses were burnt as well. There hasn’t been any irrigation since 2008.
SK: The issue of land in Zimbabwe is quite emotive. Most people would ask, what is your right to claim the land which does not belong to any white person? What are you complaining about? Is it the land or the business you were engaged in?
BF: You know every successful country has been built on the back of security of tenure. So if I invest in a business, whatever that business or if I invest in property, wherever that property is, I have a right to run that business without people coming in and taking it. Farming is something that is, it’s a very long-term business. So in terms of rights, I believe it’s the right of everyone to be able to buy or sell.