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  • Michael Chalk

Ben Freeth’s 2,000 Kilometres Ride for Justice

Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule over Zimbabwe was marred by a litany of despicable acts, two of the worst being the Gukurahundi massacre of innocent Ndebele citizens in the south of the country (1983 to 1986), and the illegal and brutal seizure of private commercial farms (2000 to 2008).

In February 2024, I covered the Gukurahundi massacres in my blogs, so I won't repeat that material here. However, a recent article in the British Times on March 18th, 2024, reminded me of the farm seizures debacle.

According to the article, Ben Freeth has recently completed a 2,000-kilometre trek on horseback from Harare, Zimbabwe to Windhoek, Namibia, to deliver a letter to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) bloc. The letter demands that the SADC bloc uphold the 2008 decision of the SADC tribunal, which found that Mugabe’s land reform program was racially motivated and illegal.

Freeth is intimately familiar with Zimbabwe’s state-sponsored violence. In 2008, he, along with his parents-in-laws, Mike and Angela Campbell, were tied up on their farm by war veterans acting on behalf of former President Robert Mugabe. They were driven into the bush, beaten, and tortured. Freeth, who had built a house on his in-laws’ land and helped run one of the most successful mango exporting farms in the country, suffered a fractured skull as a result.

The abduction and torture occurred just before the SADC Tribunal was due to hear a case brought by Mike Campbell, later joined by 77 other applicants, against the Republic of Zimbabwe. The case challenged the harassment, forced eviction of farmers, and seizure of farms instituted by Mugabe in 2000.

In its unanimous decision on November 28th 2008, the Tribunal ordered Mugabe’s government to protect “possession, occupation, and ownership” of all the applicants’ farms, except for two who had already been forcibly evicted. The state was also ordered to pay compensation to the owners of the farms which had been illegally seized.

Mugabe blatantly ignored the Tribunal’s ruling. Freeth, his family, including his children, and the Campbells, subsequently faced increasing harassment and threats as they continued to run their farm until their homes, and those of their farm workers, were burnt down by war veterans eight months later. Freeth’s home was burnt down on August 30th, 2009, with the Campbell’s home suffering the same fate two days later.

The 2011 SADC Summit effectively disbanded the Tribunal by deciding not to reappoint the judges whose term of office was ending in 2010, nor replace those whose term of office would end in 2011.

In August 2014, Mugabe, along with other heads of state, including former South African President Jacob Zuma, signed a new protocol limiting the Tribunal to only dealing with disputes between SADC states. SADC citizens were specifically prevented from accessing it to deal with human rights violations, such as those that had occurred in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe’s refusal to abide by the Tribunal’s ruling, with Jacob Zuma as a willing ally, and Mugabe’s subsequent successful campaign to suspend the Tribunal at the SADC Summit in 2011, has led Freeth to embark on the nearly 2,000 kilometre journey to Windhoek, where the SADC Secretariat sits.

In seeking to compel SADC to fully reinstate the powers of the Tribunal, Freeth says his journey is about seeking justice, and about protecting SADC’s 400 million southern African citizens, and their property.

He is appalled by the fact that many African leaders believe and act as though they are above the law, and states that the Tribunal should have been a check on that.

The tribunal’s first president had called it “a house of justice for Africa” that would set a standard for the rest of the continent. However, the Tribunal's subsequent reconfiguration means that it is no longer empowered to hear complaints by individual citizens about human rights violations by their governments.

Freeth doubts that his letter to SADC authorities calling for the reinstatement of the Tribunal’s original powers will have much of an impact beyond the symbolic gesture of hand-delivering a letter after 65 gruelling days traveling by horseback, in high summer and drought.

It should be noted that of the 4,500 white commercial farmers who were on their land in 2000 when Mugabe deployed his “war veterans” on his ill-advised ‘land reform policy’, only a handful are still on their premises. Moreover most of the farms that were seized were not given to the dispossessed, as Mugabe promised, but to his cronies. Many of the farms have subsequently been left lying fallow or have been poorly run, meaning that Zimbabwe, which was once the ‘bread basket of Africa’, can no longer feed her own people with about half of its 15 million people now in need of food aid.

The illegal seizure of farms was not only devastating, and in some cases fatal, for the farm owners, their employees, and their extended families, but also created a tsunami of economic woe for the country that continues to this day. It also solidified a total breakdown in the rule of law and independence of the judiciary, leaving Zimbabwe’s governance structures in tatters.

As former British Prime Minister David Cameron once said, “A country without a strong independent judiciary is a dictatorship waiting to happen.”

In levelling this criticism against ZANU-PF, I am not absolving the prior white minority governments of Rhodesia of criticism. As we know, in 20th century white-ruled Rhodesia, many thousands of rural tribespeople were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands with little or no compensation. The governments of the day attempted to vacuously justify these ventures on utilitarian grounds - that is to make way for large scale hydro-electric, irrigation and other agricultural ventures, totally ignoring the fact that the primary beneficiaries of these ventures were the captains of industries which, at that time, were all in white hands.

Moreover, as my mother would say, two evils a virtue doth not make!!

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Route followed by Ben Freeth

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