Unpolished, volatile and polarising, Roy Bennett was no Mother Teresa – and never pretended to be – but his wife, Heather, could have been. Together, they were a formidable team that left an indelible mark on Zimbabwe’s politics and on those who knew them. STUART DORAN remembers them after their deaths in an aircraft accident on 17 January.
Mere words cannot capture or explain a human life, still less two lives as complex and tumultuous as those of Roy and Heather Bennett. They were – simultaneously and consecutively – both private and public figures, they were loved and hated, ordinary and extraordinary, sorrowful and joyful, scarred and vibrant. The attempt to distil this – or to describe the void that remains for those closest to them – seems a vain pursuit.
It is true, too, that some of the more prominent events of Roy’s life have been recounted by others and are well documented. And so I will talk about the Roy and Heather I knew. For while I have previously written many words about Zimbabwe – and tried to be dispassionate – few have been as personal as these. It is not possible, on this occasion, to be detached or to even attempt it. We were close. I was privileged to work daily for Roy throughout most of his exile and to know his family.
Roy was frequently misunderstood by both acquaintances and enemies – and his life was, indeed, complex. But as a man, he was not. He was “just a simple oke”, as he was fond of saying – a normal person who was “not a professional politician” and who wanted to return to an uncomplicated existence on the land. His approach to politics reflected his approach to life. He was without guile. If he thought it was true, he would say it, with little regard for the consequences.
Photo: Roy Bennett at home in Harare, 2009
He was also impulsive and emotional, and would shoot from the hip – with both barrels – or rush in where others feared to tread. With Roy, you were never left guessing about what he thought.
The emotions that were often on display – and were sometimes volcanic – reflected deep passions and convictions. He judged people as individuals and had little interest in the abstract notions of collective guilt or collective virtue that animate identity politics, in either its white or black version. He dealt with what was in front of him. If he saw cruelty or injustice, he would react – or erupt. And he had a profound respect – reverence even – for community.
It is these elements of his character and personality that explain actions which sometimes confused outsiders. In 1999, he agreed to become a Zanu-PF candidate for parliament. To some, that was anathema. But he did it because the black community in Chimanimani had asked him to. When Zanu rejected him, the community rejected Zanu, and they both – the people and Roy – joined the new Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
In May 2000, on the eve of parliamentary elections, a Zanu delegation summoned Roy to a meeting where he was told he was a traitor. Senior military officers and members of the Central Intelligence Organisation presented him with a choice: he could come back to the fold, and all would be forgiven; or he would lose his farm and maybe his life – along with those of his family.
I later asked him about it, whether he had been afraid. “Yeah”, he said. “But then you just become angry.” A contemporary news report shows precisely that. A journalist from the Christian Science Monitor wrote that Roy “emerged from the confrontation red-faced and angry”. It was a pivotal moment. And it was always in such moments, where raw physical courage was required, where incoming fire was at its most intense, that Roy became a man transformed. At those times, he was no ordinary mortal, but a man of monstrous, reckless courage. “They can take my farm, but I am still running (for parliament)”, he remarked. “If the good people sit by and watch evil prevail, we are going nowhere. I am committed … I realise the implications … I realize the danger. I believe righteousness will always overrule evil … The people of Zimbabwe are being suppressed by a very, very evil regime … I am not going to be intimidated … If I lose my life to it, so be it. For my children to have a life in this country, someone has to make a stand.”
In subsequent years, Zanu-PF broadcast propaganda about Roy having secretly discovered and “looted” diamonds on his Charleswood farm. The same childish lies have been circulated in the wake of his death. Roy – supported by Heather – had put it all on the line. They had put it on the line for others, and they lost it all. And they had much more to lose than most. That farm, by Roy’s estimate, was worth six or seven million US dollars. It was not a product of “land theft”, but of years of ingenuity, of blood, sweat and tears. Its expropriation was a political hit, pure and simple.
Roy never conceded the justice of this piece of “land reform”. He always considered the farm to be his, and always wanted it back. But it was the cost to his family and community that pained him most. Heather’s miscarriage following an attempt to rescue a farm worker from a savage beating is well known. What is less well known is the heartache it caused. With it and other sorrows, the burden grew as the years passed. “I should have a little six-year-old boy running around with me”, he told me once. He wanted to be able to put his hand on that little boy’s head. The fear and disruption inflicted on his children, and the rape and murder of his farm workers, also hurt him and Heather. He often said he wanted to “walk away from all this s**t”, but the community – and the people of Zimbabwe – had laid down their lives for change. So he continued.
Roy’s first stint in jail was, famously, a consequence of a scuffle in parliament with Patrick Chinamasa and other MPs during 2004. The loss of 27 kilograms, daily humiliations and the pain of separation from his young family – shown in the tears that were shed on his release – were among the sufferings he endured. “Was it worth it?” I asked. He recalled how the late Gibson Sibanda, then deputy president of the MDC, had come to him in parliament after the incident and said, “Roy, what have you done? They will kill us now.” But if he had his time over, he would do it again, he told me. He had shown the people that they could stand up to Zanu-PF.
Other choices he regretted. Having consistently opposed a government of national unity (GNU) with Zanu, he changed tune in early 2009 and supported Morgan Tsvangirai’s decision to join hands with Robert Mugabe. Roy felt that the “people were suffering” – more than they ever had – and, in a characteristic analysis, thought that it would (to paraphrase his inimitable style) be better for him to be urinating out of the tent than urinating into it. His optimism did not last. In 2010, having fled into exile again, he told me that many of his colleagues had lost touch with the people. They had got their fingers in the till and abandoned the struggle. He had come to believe that the GNU and the MDC’s proximity to Zanu-PF was the kiss of death. Swallowing his pride, he said so publicly and admitted that he had played a role in persuading the leadership to enter the arrangement.
His regret had little to do with his rejection by Mugabe as the MDC’s nominee for the agriculture portfolio. Roy’s arrest during the swearing-in of cabinet, and his subsequent incarceration in hideous conditions, is another well-documented chapter. But what was never public was his plan to resign from the position as soon as he was sworn in. His main disappointment, he confided, was that he never had the chance to shake Mugabe’s hand. He intended to deliver a bone-crushing greeting from the people of Zimbabwe, accompanied, no doubt, by some choice words in Shona.
I believed him. Aside from the mismatch between the president’s under-exercised octogenarian hands and the farmer’s meat hooks – gnarled and disfigured from many a brawl in his youth – there was a precedent. In another incident, Roy had met the long-time Zanu supporter and minister of health, Timothy Stamps, at a cocktail party. Dispensing with pleasantries, he brought the heel of his heavy boot down on the minister’s toes will full force. “He’s mad! He’s mad!” screamed Stamps.
Roy battled on in exile until the 2013 elections. But they were, in many ways, locust years. He was increasingly disenchanted with the lack of cohesion among the opposition – and he increasingly felt drawn to rebuilding a life and a livelihood for his family away from politics. He was angry in the aftermath of elections that were clearly manipulated, and made some angry statements in the media, but then drifted away quietly. There was no longer, he felt, a platform from which to make a contribution, and the time had come to step back. Little was heard from him in the remaining years of his life. Most people did not even know where he had gone. The drive for change, he told me, had come from the people, and it was up to the people to regroup and push on. He’d given his all; he’d done his best.
Always a reluctant politician, Roy returned to what made him happiest: carving a farm from virgin bush in central Zambia. He sent me a note: “It’s tough but refreshing. No politics or betrayal. Just good, honest hard work.” When we spoke, he reiterated that he was beyond relieved to be out of it; no backstabbing, no back biting, no deviousness or conniving – nothing but long days and hard labour, working with his hands. He was intent on leaving an inheritance for his family. And he has.
There were many private attempts by high-profile personalities to rope him back into politics or to call him back to farming in Zimbabwe – all of which he refused, often with little decorum. Roy was never diplomatic, and even less so in those years. He was done with politics and intrigue, and he wanted to be left alone.
Through 15 years of turmoil, Heather stood by Roy in quiet loyalty. He simply could not have continued if she had refused or crumpled – but she never did. She was a gentle soul, with massive powers of endurance and patience. Where others would have folded long before, Heather continued with a grace and poise that never deserted her. No doubt the family saw times when the strain became too much for her, but, over many years, I never once saw her fly off the handle or lose her dignity. Heather was as long-suffering and as temperate as Roy was mercurial and tempestuous. The unrelenting pressures came from without and within. She lost a baby, her home, her security, saw her children hurt – and gave her husband to a struggle that seemed to have no end. There were frequent moves, frequent separations, and frequent crises. And it was she who absorbed the worst of the stress that accumulated in Roy year by year.
She did it because of who she was – and because, like him, she believed in the cause they were fighting for. She was his rock, yet she was also a strong and independent thinker – a fighter in her own right. She stood for parliament in Roy’s place when he was first imprisoned. She joined him on the front line of street protests, where the batons and boots were most likely to fly. She had her own views, often contrary to Roy’s. He would never read books on Zimbabwe, saying he had seen enough violence and sorrow with his own eyes. Lightweight westerns by Louis L’Amour were his staple. Heather, on the other hand, read widely on Zimbabwe and its politics, and was well informed. She was often underestimated. She rarely spoke a word in Shona, but nevertheless understood every conversation that took place in the vernacular between Roy and his colleagues.
Irascible and blunt though he could be, Roy loved and respected her. “My girl”, was his pet name for Heather. For while Roy Bennett was a street fighter, he was not a hard man. More than once, I saw him shed tears.
Now, together with his girl, he is gone. Death has not parted them; it has taken them both.
Enemies – and they remain, even in death – may curse and spit, but how are we, who loved them and who were loved by them, to respond? We could do worse than heed the principles by which Roy survived innumerable sorrows. Often, after a day when the burden seemed to have become unbearable, I would see Roy again the next morning and his spirit had revived. Not for him, the atheism and scepticism of the age in which we live. Roy had a simple trust in the goodness and love of God – though he had seen far more suffering than those whose lesser trials had long ago caused them to abandon such faith. “I took it, and I handed it to him last night”, he would say. “I told him, ‘It’s too much; here, you have it – and I gave it all to him’.” With it came an equally straightforward trust in God’s wisdom. “Everything happens for a reason”, was another of his refrains. We may not know, we cannot understand – but we trust. And walk on.
Ancients who shared the same faith put it thus: there is a time for everything, a season for every activity under the heavens; a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them; a time to search and a time to give up; a time to be silent and a time to speak; a time for war and a time for peace.
Roy and Heather Bennett have done them all. We will miss them. God knows, we will miss them. More than words can say. Vale. DM
Stuart Doran is a historian who worked for Roy Bennett between 2008 and 2014
Photo: Roy and Heather Bennett, Serenje, Zambia, 2017.
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.