First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

Daily Maverick interview: Roy Bennett’s ready for cha...



Daily Maverick interview: Roy Bennett’s ready for change

Roy Bennett is one of Zimbabwe’s most divisive politicians. After the farmer joined Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and was elected to parliament, he is famous for physically confronting a Zanu-PF minister who insulted him. It earned him eight months in a flea-infested prison, sleeping on concrete floors with one blanket and no working toilet. It wasn’t the last time he was arrested. As treasurer of the MDC-T, he has spent years in exile. GREG NICOLSON meets Bennett for an extensive chat on Zimbabwe’s upcoming elections and a look at the country since it last went to the polls in 2008.

Can you start by telling me about the Government of National Unity (GNU)? How do you rate its success and failures?

The GNU was a large indictment on Africa and especially South Africa and Southern Africa because in 2008 the MDC and Morgan Tsvangirai clearly won the election. There was absolutely no doubt about it, to the extent that all the observers that were sent in there, not a single one endorsed that election, especially the violent run-off and the swearing in of Robert Mugabe. But he was sworn in and everything just went away. Then came the GNU.

Thabo Mbeki at the time forced the GNU and we were at loggerheads, the leadership of the MDC, as to [the question] do we go in or do we go out. Some of us said we don’t go in. Some of us said we go in. As it turns out, when that happened in 2008, there was hyperinflation and the country was a failed state. The medical facilities had fallen completely. Cholera was running rampant. The education system had collapsed. The hospitals, the infrastructure… The civil servants hadn’t been paid for over six months. The army had started rioting on a couple of occasions where they had gone into informal places and started looting stuff.

The country was on a precipice. Some of us said, “Listen, let it completely fall and pick up the pieces rather than going into a government of national unity”. Some of us said, “Listen, for the sake of the people and humanitarian reasons it’s only right that we go along with this GNU and save the people” – which is basically what happened.

On the inception of the GNU, again through Thabo Mbeki, Zanu-PF kept all the influential posts but allowed the MDC two real powerful posts, which were the ministry of energy and the ministry of finance. Those are the two ministries in Zimbabwe where you can see great signs of moving things forward. The dollarisation by the minister of finance stabilised the economy and brought inflation down from trillions into single-digit figures. We had an influx then of foreign direct investment.

But what it also did was it allowed Zanu-PF to regain a financial base through extractive resources and through corruption. The diamonds had just been found in 2006, so they were very fresh on the scene. The proper people that had been accorded through the correct processes and had been given those mining claims were looted of their claims by the military. The military took those over and we saw Chinese and Russian entities coming in partnering with Zanu-PF entities and the military. They rebuilt a financial base in which they were able to continue their grip on power. Whilst the good part of the GNU was people were given a reprieve – health improved, education improved, the economy improved – but we also gave Zanu-PF a lifeline which they took and abused.

I believe, however, it’s been their death because by looting in the manner that they’ve looted through the extraction of resources and especially the diamonds, if you look across the board there’s very little revenue that’s come back into the fiscus to stimulate the economy or to be able to assist in the social areas of the country. So people have not improved. For a moment they improved with the dolarisation and they understand and attribute that to the MDC.

So what the GNU did was stabilise the economy for a period of time. The minister of finance was able to make some fantastic changes to a completely failed state and bring it back off the brink and off the precipice. The minister of energy has been able to sort out, if you speak to people about the start of the GNU and where we’re at now you’ll see that electricity has increased tenfold to what it was and it’s getting better all the time. Those were the real deliverables that have come out of the GNU.

But few of the GNU’s goals were met?

Zanu-PF were never serious about joining the GNU. SADC have totally dishonoured their part of the deal. The whole GNU that was brokered by Mbeki and guaranteed by SADC was so that after two years all the necessary reforms and the necessary agreements in the GNU would be completed and either party had the choice to continue in the GNU or call for elections. Well, of course, two years passed and there was no more than 38 of the key positions in the GNU hadn’t been honoured by Zanu-PF. SADC hadn’t kept their deal in putting pressure on Zanu-PF. Here we are five years down the line right at the next term of parliament and we’re going to elections still with none of the issues that were passed for the conception of the GNU having been delivered.

But what has happened is that the people of Zimbabwe have had another five years of suffering, in so much as an understanding of who’s introducing that suffering. So currently in Zimbabwe there’s a massive, massive energy and groundswell of people wanting change. Initially the MDC leadership had taken the decision that they would not go into an election if the outstanding issues of the Government of National Unity hadn’t been addressed. But they were overwhelmed and overpowered by the people’s will of the constituents and all the structures who pushed the leadership to say, “Listen, forget it, this time we want to go and vote and we want to vote as soon as possible, let’s get it over and done with. So from that basis the MDC have gone into this election through people’s power and through people’s pushing.

I think we’re at a cusp in Zimbabwe where Zimbabwe will never be the same again. Either Zanu-PF accepts the people’s will this time and peacefully exits, where I should imagine there will be agreements of amnesty in certain cases and I’m sure behind closed doors – I’m in exile, I’m not privy to it – but I have a feeling that there’s been agreements made and guarantees given that once the level of the vote is recognised [Zanu-PF] will hand over power and move away as Zimbabwe enters into a new era.

That’s what I’ve believe, on the one side. On the other side, they could steal the vote. It’s ludicrous: the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission chairman doesn’t have access to the voters roll. The voters’ roll is still clearly hidden by the very guy who’s been the pinpoint of rigging the last elections for the last 13 years [Registrar-General] Tobaiwa Mudede. Whether that voters’ roll will be released or not who knows.

But this election will be a significant part of Zimbabwe’s history because no matter what happens the numbers will present themselves to the polling stations. Whether the voters roll is [tampered with] I believe the force and the power of the people will be undisputable and I honestly believe should they steal the election or try and steal the election, Zimbabwe will then move to the next phase of people standing up to protect their vote.

The GNU agreement had certain conditions to achieve for Zimbabwe to hold free and fair elections. Can you touch on some of the areas that have not been reformed?

The security sector hasn’t been reformed. Basically, it was supposed to have been reformed so that they would be nonpartisan. Under the new constitution, security chiefs are not supposed to be aligned to any political party but we still see the security being used in a partisan manner to arrest MDC officials, to arrest and harass the public, to deploy and threaten people, which is basically the whole reason that the reforms were introduced. So nothing has happened as far as the security sector is concerned. You can’t expect anything to move forward without a security sector that is honourable to the constitution and not the political party. That’s the biggest challenge.

Let’s touch on the last elections. It’s common knowledge what happened but can you describe your own experiences for us?

Going into those elections [Zanu-PF] saw Zimbabwe was a failed state that had broken, they had nothing. It’s when they, through the Central Intelligence Organisation, put pressure on Anglo American to release platinum deposits, massive platinum deposits, which Anglo American’s Cynthia Carroll released. Those deposits were then hawked through their main player, Billy Rautenbach through a company called Camec, which was sent to a company in New York called Och-Ziff, which is a capital investment company, and $100 million was made available to the Mugabe regime.

It was that $100 million that financed and funded the military to be able to carry out the operation which they called Operation Mavhoterapapi, which meant Operation where did you vote. That came into being when they realised they’d lost the election. That money was released, and wholesale violence was released across the breadth and width of the country. Morgan Tsvangirai fled for his life here to South Africa and pulled out of the elections to try and save the lives of the people.

Where we sit today, they’re back in the same position. Those that have looted the diamonds are not bringing it back into the party. The party’s sitting with not a penny to rub together and there are no funds for them to institute any form of violence or to utilise the military in any serious extent, unless the entities that are involved in the extract of resources pour money in, which is basically Anjin, a Chinese company, Mbada diamonds, a South African company [and] David Kessel. If those guys give them the finances they will then be able to release the machinery to start the violence all over again. But having already exposed that hand, it’s going to be very, very difficult for them to do it a second time and get away with it like they did the first time.

What was it like being an MDC member at that point and in your position?

It was terrible, absolutely terrible. Friends of mine […] a young guy, I knew him personally. Him and I used to do a lot together and he was brutally murdered. They cut his tongue out. They garroted him. It’s terrible and you’re getting reports of it on a daily basis. I’m in contact on a daily basis on what’s happening in Zimbabwe and you just feel totally helpless to the extent that I went with Morgan Tsvangirai to see Thabo Mbeki. We went together to State House to see Thabo Mbeki and I was actually thrown out of a meeting there for saying to Thabo Mbeki, “The violence that is taking place now, the blood is squarely on your head, because it’s five weeks after the elections, you haven’t released the results and you are not holding the Zimbabwean government accountable for what’s going on. You know there’s violence going on. You know that people are being killed and you [let it continue].” That’s when Morgan Tsvangirai asked me to leave the room.

It’s that impunity, that cover-up, that’s absolutely shocking and the history of both Zanu-PF and the ANC, understanding the repression they suffered under oppressive governments, and the fact that they can’t stand by the will of the people and the country is… yeah, it’s unexplainable; I can’t explain it. Maybe there’s someone out there that can.

After the GNU you was formed, the day you were supposed to be sworn in as deputy agriculture minister you were charged with terrorism…

What had happened then, there was turmoil in the ANC at that stage. Thabo Mbeki was ousted in Polokwane and the acting president at the time was Motlanthe. I got an assurance through the South African side that if I went back, as long as I played a positive role in endorsing the government of national unity and having a say in the national executive for the people to accept the government of national unity, I had a guarantee from Zanu that I wouldn’t be arrested or harassed in any way. Well, you know how much that helped. I was arrested and tried and…

Did you start to think this GNU thing was a bad idea?

I knew already it was a lame duck. In fact, if anything on the endorsement of the political price the MDC paid for going into that GNU I sometimes wonder whether it was worth it. Because it wasn’t long before the MDC was seemed to be the same as Zanu-PF. The MDC ministers and the president of the MDC (the prime minister) seemed to be on the gravy train, as if they’d forgotten about the people, seen having tea with Mugabe, creating a very negative impact on the constituency and the voters. Whilst it did a lot of humanitarian good, the MDC certainly paid a political price for going into that GNU.

Will the MDC suffer from that in these elections?


I’ve seen polls say support for the MDC has decreased.

Definitely not. The people of Zimbabwe want change and whilst there might have been negative impressions against some of the leaders of the MDC, the MDC is far bigger than any individual and it’s a party that came from people who wanted change. So the same people have energised themselves to the last hurdle of wanting to deliver that change. That’s the energy that’s there that I’m talking about now. People have seen that the Government of National Unity can’t work. People know that it’s only the MDC that can bring and deliver change to Zimbabwe and that word has spread. The strength in the rural areas is now even stronger than what used to be the MDC base, which was the city. Rural areas are far stronger.

So I know, I’m in daily contact. I don’t need any polls. I don’t need anything. I’m telling you from my contact on a daily basis, honest contact, there’s a groundswell. And I predicted the 2008 victory. I said exactly the same thing because I was in contact with the people on what was happening then. This time, the energy and the vibrancy is 10 times more than what it was in 2008. I know where the people lie and the energy that’s there. You cannot deny people their right forever.

You’ve got to push them against a wall eventually. Everybody says Zimbabweans are cowards; Zimbabweans can’t stand up for themselves. Zimbabweans are sick and tired of violence, sick and tired of war, sick and tired of oppression. They have tried democratically to effect change but no matter how hard you try everybody eventually gets their back against a wall and stands up. I honestly believe the energy and the vibrancy in Zimbabwe that is there now is indicative that the people are ready to stand up to protect their vote.

So if Zanu-PF try to steal the election there could be a revolution or an uprising?

I believe so, yes.

Couldn’t that lead to many deaths?

Absolutely. But I mean if that’s what it takes […]. You’re never going to accept the people into forcing something they do not want to accept, whether you’re Rhodesian, whether you’re Zanu-PF, whether you’re Robert Mugabe. I mean, far stronger military armies and institutions  – look at the South African Apartheid institution, look at the Rhodesian government, they were far stronger than the Zanu-PF government are […] yet they buckled to pressure. They buckled to the will of the people. Zimbabwe is irrevocably on the road to people’s rule.

Is the MDC prepared for that?

The MDC is prepared to stand by the people. Obviously the MDC knows what the will of the people is. The MDC was pushed into the election by the will of the people. So the MDC will be pushed wherever the will of the people dictate. If that’s where the people want to go the MDC are there. It’s where no one wants to go, nobody wants to tread and nobody wants to talk about but if you are going to have fewer dictatorial regimes where you’ve failed through democratic means to make those changes, you’ve failed to receive the support of anybody in doing it, it’s then up to you the people to make those changes. It’s up to the leaders to understand the roles they play and either lead and step aside and new leaders will come.

I honestly believe that because there’s no way the people are going to accept another theft of an election and another five years of pain and suffering and what’s happened in the least five years. Everybody is suffering in Zimbabwe: 1.7 million people in need of food aid; there’s no jobs; companies are closing; in fact the highest rate of companies closing at the moment if you speak to the national employment council and see what they’re dealing with in liquidations, companies are closing left, right and centre. Cash is very, very hard to come by in Harare. It’s an informal market. Most of the money moving around in Zimbabwe is not moving around through the fiscus or the banks. It’s moving around in cash and there’s not enough to go around.

So there’s genuine, genuine desperation at all levels. Business has never suffered as much as it has now and even the fat cats in the sweetheart deals are suffering because the economy has dropped to the levels it’s dropped to because of misgovernance and there’s no foreign direct investment and there’s absolutely no business that’s booming and picking up. Everything has been collapsing.

Then why do we keep hearing about the Zimbabwean economy improving?

I’d love to know where. [Bennett goes on to explain why tobacco output is increasing and why it’s an anomaly.]

Let’s have a look at South Africa and SADC’s role in the last few years. Lindiwe Zulu was realistic and reflected what much of us think on Zimbabwe but once Mugabe and Zanu-PF criticised her we saw President Zuma distance himself from his own aide. Is Zuma bowing the pressure of Mugabe and Zanu-PF?

I don’t think so. I think that’s politics. I think Zuma’s a very shrewd politician and I think he endorsed what Lindiwe Zulu said but had to be seen as for neutrality. I think Zuma himself is fully aware and I think SADC are fully aware of the issues in Zimbabwe and are very threatened by it but don’t know how to deal with it because it’s reached tipping point whereby they brokered and endorsed the Government of National Unity, which they guaranteed would bring free and fair elections, they guaranteed the reforms that should’ve taken place. They’re sitting in a very hard spot now because that hasn’t happened and elections are happening and they don’t know how to deal with it. I honestly believe they don’t know how to deal with it. They haven’t got the backbone or the courage to stand up and call Mugabe to book, for whatever those reasons are. But they are fully aware of what is happening in Zimbabwe.

What role do you anticipate they will play if the election is contested or there is an uprising as you say may happen?

I think SADC and South Africa just need to play a role of transparency and accountability, dealing whatever they’ve agreed to as SADC and the ruling principles of countries that have signed into what SADC stands for. The minute you transgress you are held accountable. But I think already Bob has been rapped on the knuckles and I think he’s got a very clear message that SADC has also reached a stage where they’ve had enough of [his antics] and that’s why you’ve heard him repeatedly say he’ll pull out of SADC, because if he pulls out of SADC he’s not accountable.

It’s total suicide for Mugabe and Zanu-PF because that’s totally unsustainable. Once they pull out of SADC they’re not going to last for long.

The Western world also has a very huge part to play. SADC has a very huge part to play and at the end of the day all we have to do is question humanity and what’s right and wrong. Can you sacrifice the people of Zimbabwe for political expediency, for a small minority who are despots and go to any lengths to retain power, or are you going to sacrifice them for the huge majority who need democracy and a better life and will bring in the policies that will change the country and bring it forward. The Western world is just as guilty as SADC is. Don’t run away from it, don’t blame SADC, don’t blame Zuma. If we’re gonna play the blame game let’s play the blame game squarely on the back of the Western world as well because they watched Mugabe act with impunity. The biggest hurt that I have is the anti-Apartheid movement. That movement singlehandedly supported the oppressed people of South Africa to be able to effect regime change in South Africa but you’ve never heard a word from them against the black-on-black oppression that’s happening in Zimbabwe. You’ve never heard a word.

I don’t understand that and something I find very difficult is this whole racial issue. I’m a Zimbabwean. I don’t give a damn about the colour of a man’s skin. I do give a damn about the thoughts of a man. So whether you’re a black man or a white man, you treat people badly, you’re bad. Whether you’re a black man or a white man and you treat people good, you’re good. There are still major issues in the world around colonialism and colour at the expense of ordinary people who all they are doing is fighting for democracy and a better life.

Is that part of the expectation that some countries will accept “credible” elections in Zimbabwe (lacking widespread violence) even if they don’t meet the standards of the free and fair elections they would demand in their own countries?

Therein comes the hypocrisy and expediency. How can you say credible elections? What are credible elections? So if they steal it and the people are denied democracy and Zimbabwe deteriorates into an Egypt where thousands of lives are lost? Had the world had backbone and had SADC had the backbone to stand up for what was right in the first place you would have saved thousands of lives. One way or another, either this election goes through and is recognised for what the people want and you save lives. Or, it’s stolen and Zimbabwe deteriorates into a despot state.

How much of the current situation – Mugabe’s and Zanu-PF’s continued rule – come down to the internal politics of the party and military?

The military is Zanu-PF. Zanu-PF is the military. There’s no distinction and that’s one of the biggest problems that we’ve had to deal with, which we said before. Therein lies the major problem. It’s the old story – the crocodile eats its own children. They have reached a stage where every single aspect of looting resources, trying to appropriate wealth for their own internal consumption for them to remain loyal to Zanu-PF is gone. The first one was when they dealt with the Ndebeles and killed them in the eighties to remain in power. So the first thing was violence. Violence has played its hand out. The second thing was the land. That’s played its hand out. The third was indigenisation. That’s played its hand out. What’s left? What’s left? They’re eating each other to try and grasp the last little bits of what’s left for themselves. We’ve reached the tipping point. That’s what I believe. DM

This is an edited version of the reporter’s interview with Bennett in his Johannesburg office.

Photo: Roy Bennett (Greg Nicolson)


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted