Ben Freeth, together with his late father-in-law Mike Campbell, has been one of the highest profile campaigners against Zimbabwe’s land reforms. He has taken his case to a regional court, raised the plight of the white farming community in the international press and suffered extraordinary violence and abuse as a consequence.
He has now also written a book: Mugabe and the White African. It follows on from a film of the same name, and has been endorsed in forewords by two archbishops – Desmond Tutu (Archbishop Emeritus) and John Sentamu (Archbishop of York). On the front cover it is described as “utterly compelling” by the BBC Today Programme foreign affairs correspondent, Mike Thompson. And in many ways it is. It is an extraordinary and at times shocking account. But it is also very ill-informed, on multiple accounts. As Miles Tendi has already commented in respect of the film, the absence of history and any reflection on the inequities in land and wealth created by colonialism is striking. And in terms of detail, inaccuracies abound. But it is the perceptions that come over again and again that are most extraordinary, and in some ways give a clear but disturbing insight into some of the extreme, delusional positions taken by some members of the white farming community.
These are of course positions that ultimately meant that a sensible compromise on land reform was not brokered in the three decades from independence. A combination of arrogance, isolation, misunderstanding and a highly racialised vision comes through in these pages again and again. Here is Freeth on the old (pre-2000) resettlements: “I knew what resettlement meant. I had visited resettlement areas as part of my job. Even on prime farms with dams and irrigation, resettlement was invariably a disaster, and the resettled farms ended up becoming places of subsistence, supporting significantly fewer people than they had done before” (p. 42). Riddled with inaccuracies and coloured by deeply held cultural misperceptions, he reveals again and again, why in many respects the post-Independence ‘reconciliation’ on land did not happen.
In some respects, we have become accustomed to these sort of rants. But the additional ingredient in this book is strident evangelical religion. This is where the book becomes just plain weird (especially to non-believers, but I suspect many church goers too – although apparently not two high-profile archbishops and a well-known BBC correspondent). He talks of a “continual tussle between the spiritual forces of good and evil” (p. 88), with the ‘good’ being the upholders of individual property rights and the ‘evil’ being “witch doctors, spirit mediums, spells”. It could have been written by a nineteenth century missionary, although I suspect many such people had a better understanding of the people they lived among. There are pages and pages of this sort of thing, rising to a crescendo towards the end. Here is one such passage where he explains why “Africa is in such a mess today”: “A covenant with death has been formed. The result of entering into a covenant with death is that everything that you touch simply dies. One of the clearest illustrations of this is in agriculture. The war veterans who have invaded our farms always claimed that our land was far better than theirs. Their crops however look pitiable…” (p.92). Describing the new resettlements he says “I find them full of dark despondency and despair” (p. 128). As in David Hughes’ superb analysis, a particular (white) landscape aesthetic is wrapped up in his critique of land reform: “Areas that had been beautiful, lush bush the last time I’d seen them were now just forests of stumps – angular ugly things to people who love trees (p. 128-9).
The racy, sensationalist style of the book belies deep misunderstanding sand strong cultural biases which have fuelled the polarisation that Zimbabwe still confronts. Freeth was once employed by the Commercial Farmers Union but fell out with the hierarchy due to his belligerent stand and formed Justice for Agriculture, formalising the split in the commercial farming community, so excellently documented by Angus Selby. Now gaining an insight into Freeth’s extreme and sometimes bizarre views this split was perhaps inevitable, but it did of course help to undermine the prospects for a more negotiated settlement on land at a sensitive time.
With the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, arriving in Harare soon to discuss with Robert Mugabe the breakaway Church of England group and the expropriation of church property and congregations, I wonder if the alliance Freeth seems to have struck with the some other archbishops will help in these sensitive negotiations!