The launch of Zimbabwean farmer, Ben Freeth’s memoir, Mugabe and the White African (Mugabe en die wit Afrikaan), at Kalk Bay Books late last week was a splendid success. Following an introduction from Ann Donald, the author together with Advocate Jeremy Gauntlett SC held the floor for an hour with a riveting account of the heroic struggle of a group of white Zimbabwean farmers against Robert Mugabe.
Gauntlett began by describing his legal involvement in the struggle against farm confiscations. Said Gauntlett, “I found myself appearing before courts, particularly the supreme court of Zimbabwe, on which every judge who sits has at least one confiscated farm in his or her own name. Except one – Wilson Sambura, who to his credit refused to be tainted in that way.”
He commented wryly on Zimbabwe’s High Court judges, whose efforts are rewarded by the government with such material goods as flat screen TVs, as well as his involvement in a series of cases which he describes as “scholarly but spurious”.
Reflecting on Freeth’s boundless optimism in the struggle for justice, Gauntlett said, “I said it was untried; it was the new SADC tribunal and I didn’t hold out too much hope. I anticipated they would bat for the Zimbabwean government. Ben and Mike Campbell decided it had to be tried. So it was we ended up in Windhoek before the tribunal. Through arduous drawn out proceedings, there came a day when the court handed down a judgement on all points in favour of the nearly 80 farmers and their hundreds of workers who were also represented. The farmers wept.”
The advocate said this outcome was well documented in the multi-award winning film, Mugabe and the White African. “They had not thought that they would hear a judgment, handed down by the president of that court (a scion of a legendary Mozambican revolutionary family), which held that the land programme of Zimbabwe violated the treaty obligations of Zimbabwe, was arbitrary and most significantly, discriminatory.”
Ben Freeth followed with a reflection on the meaning of law: “As a farmer, I had no concept of the rule of law. We accepted that it was just something that was there and went on with the things we could do. Suddenly in 2000, the rule of law was taken away. It was a rude shock to suddenly understand how important the law is in a society, in being able to go about your daily lives. I got to thinking about the law as we saw farmers murdered and terrible situations with brutes beating drums and terrifying families. When the Commercial Farmers Union went to the law we were left totally alone, unable to get help from anyone” he said.
Travelling through South African farming districts on his book tour, various local farmers had approached him and said farm invasions would never happen here because they had guns. They said that they had neighbours who would come to their aid should something comparable happen. “In Zimbabwe there are many people with guns who are very well trained to use them. But guns were not the answer. And guns are not the answer in this country either.”
Freeth shared the significance of his Christian faith and pondered the historical meaning of the law: “The Children of Israel came out of slavery some 4000 years ago and the first thing God gave them after crossing the Red Sea was the law. When you read history and you see nations parting from the law you see disaster strike. In 2000 the law was taken away from us in Zimbabwe and we had to scramble round how we’d survive a situation of lawlessness and anarchy.”
Suspended form the Commercial Farmers’ Union because of his confrontational approach, Freeth ventured out as an isolated family, parterning with other isolated families and communities. “We went to the Supreme Court, knowing we would lose. We believed that another avenue would open. Within a week of our hearing in the Supreme Court, the SADC tribunal opened for business. We went to the SADC tribunal, where we won.
“We got a judgement that I believe will be foundational for the rebuilding of agriculture in our country. We’ve seen the incredible intimidation against our family. We’ve seen our houses burned before our eyes. We’ve seen how we left with absolutely nothing – not even a toothbrush.”
“Although we left with nothing I believe we left with something inside that was far more than everything we’d ever had before. Ultimately every one of us must face the ultimate loss. Mike [Campbell] used to say to me, ‘There’s no pocket in the shroud.’ He passed away, I believe, with an eternal hope that went beyond the bad things that have happened to us.”
“I don’t know what the future holds. I’ve written this book as a history of the past. I have an enthusiasm and an optimism for the future because I believe that as we stand up and have faith, as we get involved and stand strong together, we will see changes start to happen. As Abraham Lincoln said, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. If we are not vigilant, and if we do not all play our part and do the things we know to be right, we will see the liberties that you currently cherish in this country being eroded. We are here at the southern tip of Africa and the sea is not very far away.”
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Liesl Jobson tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:
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