An image I will never forget is of Ben Freeth’s three little children on the front lawn of their farmhouse west of Harare with Comrade ‘Landmine’ and his gun-toting, drunken gang zooming up the driveway. The ZANU-PF attackers threatened to burn down the house that day if the white farmers did not leave. I was very nervous being there. But when I looked at Ben’s kids, they hardly flinched. They had taut, blank faces. Later, after I was safely overseas, the thugs returned to the Freeths with burning tyres after dark. They howled like hyenas, broke into the bedrooms and threatened to eat the children.
This month Landmine’s gang did burn the house down. It was a lovely thatched place full of family photos, nice books and a beautiful garden. They burned the dog inside. They also torched the workers’ houses and the home of Ben’s elderly parents-in-law, Mike and Angela Campbell, which had been seized and pillaged earlier this year.
This ordeal has been going on for years. The Campbells once had a tourist lodge on their farm, Mount Carmel. That was razed too. All the wild animals were poached. Last year Landmine’s men took Ben, Mike and Angela into the bush at night and beat them with rifle butts. Between the three of them, 13 bones were broken. Mike has never fully recovered.
Mount Carmel was once Zimbabwe’s biggest mango producer. They exported to Marks & Spencer’s in Britain. When I visited, 50 tonnes of mangoes were rotting in the pack sheds because the workers had been chased away. A fellow named Nathan Shamuyarira, Mugabe’s personal biographer, is ultimately behind the invasion though he has already stolen several white farms. Landmine, who wears a Huggy Bear hat, is just an enforcer. His payment is to steal whatever harvest is left in the fields.
Ben and Mike have opposed the invasions and eviction orders in the local courts. Last year they also represented 77 white farmers when they took their case to a regional African tribunal. That court ruled in their favour, calling the invasions illegal and racially prejudiced. Robert Mugabe simply dismissed the result, but ZANU-PF is clearly terrified of the prospect of the rule of law being restored.
Despite what they have been through I was astonished by Ben’s positive outlook. His eyes lit up when he spoke. He radiated friendly warmth. He often referred to his Christian faith and perhaps that was the source of his courage. Whatever the case, simply telling the truth in a place where reality itself has become so distorted seemed liberating for him.
People who believe Africa is ‘finished’ or is ruled by leaders beyond reform think Ben should give up. But Ben recently wrote in the Times, ‘If individual men and women allow evil to advance unchecked, it will prevail and more people will suffer and starve.’
The other day we were the only white people at a lunch when the conversation turned to Zimbabwe and a businessman declared, ‘I am a great admirer of Mugabe, who is a hero to the African people. I hate the white settlers. I personally hate them with a passion.’ It was as if we were not there. I could not be bothered to object because I did not want a fight. As a group in Africa we have learned to keep our mouths shut. Meanwhile, Namibian founding president Sam Nujoma recently told a crowd to beware of this nasty ex-colonial minority because, ‘Whites are dangerous, just like the black mamba...’ This could have been any African politician talking of Tutsis, or Kikuyus, or women in trousers.
I do not possess the courage Ben has but he inspires me. Not only is he trying to defend his property, he is also being a patriotic African. He is fighting evil in what seems to be a very lonely battle that has been thrust on him. If he perseveres, and if he can stay alive, he might win. That really would be some good news out of Africa. He just emailed me on a borrowed computer after visiting the ashes of his home. ‘I am back up and running again now and we intend to rebuild on the ruins,’ he wrote. ‘And we are already starting to do so.’