My belated review of the book by Ben Freeth, which followed the documentary of the same name.
MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN
What if the violent invasion of white-owned farms launched by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in 2000 had little to do with land? What if they weren’t even much about politics? What if, instead, the catastrophe under way in Zimbabwe is a fundamental struggle between forces of light and darkness, good and evil; righteous Christian values on the one hand, malevolent African spirits on the other?
The premise would make for an intriguing novel, but it is in fact the underlying thesis of a memoir, Mugabe and the White African, by white Zimbabwean farmer Ben Freeth, an alternately inspiring, frustrating, and heartbreaking story about his family’s struggle to hold onto to their farm west of Harare as thugs and cronies of Mugabe’s government claim it for themselves.
If the title sounds familiar, Mr. Freeth and his late father-in-law, Mike Campbell, are the subjects of the powerful 2009 documentary, Mugabe and the White African, screened on PBS in the US and with a cinema release in the UK, about the landmark case they brought against Mugabe in a SADC human rights court, protesting the expropriation of their farm on the grounds that it was racially discriminatory. Incredibly, they won the court case. Whether they won back in Zimbabwe, however, where Mr. Mugabe plays by his own rules, is open to question.
The film, which centers around the court case and increasing violence taking place on the farm (Freeth shoots much of the footage himself, with a smuggled camera), only alludes to the family’s faith. The book, on the other hand, reads like a Christian morality tale – a deeply personal account of religious belief, truth and justice in the face of tyranny. Freeth sees evil around him. Literally. A black dog-like creature appears at the foot of his bed one night – a demonic spirit. “Go, in the name of Jesus,” he commands. It flees.
The Zimbabwean memoir has almost become a genre in its own right, possibly the only growth industry spawned by Mugabe the past dozen years. But while most have been written by journalists, diplomats, and white Zimbabweans from the safety of exile (I raise my hand), this is the first widely-published account by a farmer on the front-lines throughout the land war. It’s a brutal time, and Mr. Freeth has the scars to prove it.
British born, but married to the Zimbabwe-born Campbell’s daughter, Laura, Mr. Freeth was employed in the 1990s by the mainly white Commercial Farmers Union as an advisor in the Mashonaland West district. It was a time of prosperity and booming agriculture, and Freeth came to know the area as well as anyone. The region also happened to be Mr. Mugabe’s home district. When, in the early days of the land invasions, a white farmer protests to Freeth that a n’anga (witch doctor) whom Mugabe is said to personally consult, lives on his farm, Mr. Freeth advises him to evict him. You sense this isn’t going to end well.
When the invasions begin in force, the Campbell farm is listed for resettlement. Squatters move in, their animals are slaughtered, workers, friends and neighbors are beaten, and murdered. Freeth, his wife and four-month old son are attacked when they drive to check up on a friend whose home is under siege. The farm is soon allocated to a senior Mugabe minister whose son, spewing racist vitriol, visits in a fancy new car to tell Mr. Freeth to leave. Freeth calmly films their confrontation. Most of us would have got the hell out by now. The family decide to stay, and pursue the court case. Mr. Freeth writes an extraordinary letter to his four-year-old son, justifying their decision. “I feel so privileged to know you are growing up in such an environment, learning to know and appreciate the real things…” he writes. The average American would be calling Social Services at this point.
One of the myths about Zimbabwe is that white farmers were a monolithic block united in opposition to Mugabe. Not so. One of the best parts of the book is Freeth’s scathing insider account of how the CFU leadership tried to cut deals with the regime. He was appalled. They “had to feed the crocodile and hope we would be the last to be eaten.” When CFU leaders attend a ceremony with Mugabe officials in which they bow down to a chief who led many of the farm invasions – “Appeasing the ancestral spirits,” runs the photo caption in the state-run Herald newspaper – Freeth is incensed. And it’s here, in a long letter he writes to the CFU director, that he makes his case that the conflict in Zimbabwe is a spiritual one, and that what the white farmer’s did will only makes matters worse:
“The land issue is not a struggle for land. It is a struggle (politics aside) for control of the spiritual places, the High Places, the places of water spirits and the ancestral spirits that are part of the land. It is a struggle of good against evil ‘in the heavenly realms.’”
I’m not sure those white farmers thought they were appeasing tribal spirits. Most likely they were doing anything to protect their backs. In Freeth’s world of good and evil there’s no space for twilight. Yet, while it sounds extreme, it’s exactly this faith that gives Mr. Freeth and his family the strength to resist the regime. In the most harrowing scene, as the case is turning against Mugabe, Mr. Freeth, Mr. Campbell and Mr. Campbell’s wife Angela, the latter two in their 70s, are abducted and viciously tortured. During the assault, bloodied and semi-conscious, Mr. Freeth touches his attackers in turn: “May the Lord Jesus bless you,” he tells each one.
Mr. Campbell is so badly beaten he cannot attend the next hearing, but he is there when they win the case. Mr. Mugabe’s defense team walk out before it is handed down.
This book is not for everyone. Secular westerners will roll their eyes at talk of miracles, visions (that black dog), and signs of God in the clouds. And Freeth does his cause no favors with a hopelessly one-sided account of the 1970s Liberation War; not to mention the racist policies of the Rhodesian regime seems churlish. There’s also very little actual politics in the book. Zimbabwean elections – epochal moments – come and go with barely a comment. Mr. Freeth and his family are clearly heroic opponents of Mr. Mugabe, but it’s not apparent that they support the opposition MDC, whose members are killed and beaten in far greater numbers than white farmers.
But perhaps this is Mr. Freeth’s point. He is a man of God, not politics. He simply wants to be left alone to farm the land he and his family legally bought and paid for. If he gets such courage to do so from God, then we could all do with a bit of it.
The book has no happy ending. They may have won their case, but both Mr. Freeth and Mr. Campbell’s homes were subsequently burned to the ground. The family remain in Zimbabwe, but not on their land. In April 2011, Mr. Campbell, 78, died from injuries suffered in that 2008 assault. Mr. Mugabe, it must be pointed out, is a religious man, too. The same month Mr. Campbell died, Mr. Mugabe flew to the Vatican to attend the Beatification of Pope John Paul II. Exactly whose side is God on here?