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Loyalty, not race, propels Zimbabwe campaign

Wife of jailed white politician seeks his seat

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Heather Bennett had never even given a toast at a private dinner. But on a recent day, Bennett, the wife of a farmer whose property was seized by armed gangs five years ago, stood trembling before more than 2,500 people at a campaign rally in eastern Zimbabwe.

Speaking in the local language, Shona, she said she and her imprisoned husband, Roy, would never leave their impoverished constituents. ''The Bennetts are here to stay," she declared.

The scene bore no resemblance to the stereotypes of Zimbabwe today. Here was a white woman addressing a crowd of cheering black supporters, running for her husband's seat in parliament in elections set for March 31.

And she's the favorite, showing that justice in Zimbabwe is not necessarily black and white.

Five years ago, many disenfranchised blacks supported President Robert Mugabe's decision to seize the majority of the 4,000 white-owned farms in Zimbabwe, arguing that it was long past time for blacks to own more of the country's property and wealth. Still, voters in the town of Chimanimani that year elected Roy Bennett to parliament by a wide margin. He had promised to fight for their concerns.

Now, he is in jail, sentenced to a one-year term by members of the ruling party in parliament for shoving to the floor Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, who had called Bennett's ancestors ''thieves" who had stolen land. Many in Bennett's district see the sentencing as a new kind of injustice. After a judge ruled that Bennett could not run for office from prison, his constituents turned to his wife to represent them.

She did not want to run, but reluctantly agreed.

''When Roy first ran for parliament, we discussed it together, and we decided that we were going into it together," she said. ''Plus, Roy still has all his projects he wants to carry out in parliament," including repairs to schools and churches damaged from a cyclone four years ago.

Her husband's enduring popularity, she said, ''is one of the things that infuriates the government. Roy defies everything they try to portray is happening," she said a few days before the rally, sitting in the manicured garden of a rented home in Harare, the capital. ''He's a white farmer liked by labor forces."

In hindsight, the land grabs are not so popular now, as fields lie fallow and hundreds of thousands of farm workers have lost jobs and homes. Mugabe recently acknowledged that just 44 percent of farmland was being used.

The Bennetts, whose families had been in Zimbabwe for at least a half-century, lost almost everything in 2000 -- their 7,000-acre coffee farm, a $125,000 coffee harvest, their house and their belongings inside, vehicles, 900 head of cattle, even their children's rabbits and guinea pigs.

And Heather Bennett, five months pregnant, miscarried in May of that year, a few hours after gangs invaded the farm for the first time. One person held a machete to her throat and forced her to repeat slogans praising the ruling party, Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF.

That year, Roy Bennett received 11,410 votes -- compared with 8,072 for the ZANU-PF candidate -- in an election that, nationwide, was deemed by most international observers to have been rigged by the ruling party. He was one of five whites and 115 blacks who won seats in parliament.

His campaign manager, James Mukwaya, said he was not surprised when Roy Bennett's supporters asked him to enlist Heather Bennett to run.

Mukwaya, who is black, called Roy Bennett ''white in complexion, but his heart is black. . . . There is nobody who can separate Roy's family and the people of Chimanimani. That is why the government of Zimbabwe made a very big mistake arresting Roy, putting him in jail for no apparent reason. Some people will actually vote on emotion. They say, 'Although you jailed him, we will elect his wife.' "

David Coltart, another white member of parliament, said that what the government did to Roy Bennett reminds many of tactics whites used against blacks before independence in 1980. ''People understand what happened to Roy is unjust," Coltart said.

Still, it was not easy for Heather Bennett to run for parliament against Samuel Udenge, a former diplomat who served in Zimbabwe's embassy in London.

She has been living quietly with her 17-year-old daughter, a high school junior, in a rented house. A 19-year-old son is studying in England. Friends try to protect her. To meet her, two foreign journalists were asked to switch cars on the way there -- a precaution in case state security officers were trailing them.

But inside the security wall of her home, surrounded by her four dogs, Heather Bennett, 42, seemed relaxed as she slid her pink flip-flops on and off her feet.

Every two weeks, she said, she is allowed to see her husband for a half-hour in jail. ''The conditions are absolutely awful," she said. ''They get two meals a day -- a cup of rice and cabbage stew, which is basically cabbage and water. Three times a month they get a little bit of meat on their plates."

She said her husband and 14 others share a cell that is 12 feet by 8 feet. ''The guy next to him is dying of AIDS, and he is retching in the middle of the night," she said. ''Roy says the poverty and absolute desperation of prisoners is psychologically the hardest thing to deal with."

For Christmas, prison officials allowed family members to bring food, but she said her husband told her he did not want anything special. ''I brought a ham sandwich," she said. ''He said he couldn't possibly eat something nice when no one else has it." Of the 200 prisoners at the northern Zimbabwe jail, only 20 had visitors on Christmas because most relatives could not afford bus fare.

Their daughter no longer can bear seeing her father in jail. ''Afterwards, she sobs and sobs for hours," Heather Bennett said. ''He wrote two letters to her. They are in her desk. She won't read them until Roy comes out."

Before Roy Bennett's sentencing in parliament, she urged him to leave the country to avoid jail time. He refused, she said, saying other Zimbabweans faced far worse yet had no option of leaving.

Heather Bennett is not thinking of leaving now, although she worries about the impact their plight has had on their children. ''I think everyone, including us, must ask themselves if it's worth it," she said.

She paused, then answered her own question: ''Yes, it's worth it."

In part, that is because Zimbabwe is their home. And in part, it is because she thinks life eventually will improve. ''Democracy will come to Zimbabwe because of the good nature of the people," she said. ''I think this whole race thing will be put to bed. There's no way evil reigns forever."

But for now, there is campaigning to do -- which means more public speaking.

''I was absolutely a nervous wreck," she said by telephone a few days after the campaign rally. ''I ended up reading most of my speech. But we were completely swamped by the people there. They were delighted. It was a really, really good feeling."

John Donnelly can be reached at donnelly@globe.com.


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