National News

Roy Bennett, White Zimbabwean With a Black Political Base, Dies in a U.S. Helicopter Crash

Posted January 18, 2018 6:45 p.m. EST

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Roy Bennett, a Zimbabwean coffee grower whose farm was seized in a land redistribution program, and who emerged as a formidable leader of the main party opposed to President Robert G. Mugabe, died on Wednesday evening in a helicopter crash in New Mexico. He was 60.

The death was announced on Thursday by the New Mexico State Police and by the Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, which Bennett helped found in 1999.

Bennett and four other people — his wife, Eileen Heather Bennett, 55; a passenger from Texas; and the helicopter’s pilot and co-pilot — died when their private helicopter, a Huey, crashed after taking off from Raton, New Mexico. It was destined for Folsom, New Mexico, about 35 miles to the east. One person was seriously injured, but survived. The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the crash.

Roy Leslie Bennett was born on Feb. 16, 1957, in the eastern town of Rusape, in what was then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. He was 8 in 1965 when members of the white ruling minority issued a unilateral declaration of independence, which resulted in economic sanctions, isolation from the international community and a violent insurgency by black nationalists, many with communist leanings.

The crisis ended with a negotiated settlement that gave birth to a new country, Zimbabwe, in 1980, led by its black majority.

Mugabe, the country’s new leader, was hailed as a freedom fighter, but during his 37-year rule, the once-prosperous nation fell into economic ruin. A major factor was a violent program, begun in 2000, that confiscated the large commercial properties of white farmers, which was intended to redress economic inequities but caused economic havoc, although it ultimately led to a boom in small black farms. Mugabe’s relatives were among the beneficiaries of the land seizures.

Fluent in Shona, one of Zimbabwe’s main languages, Bennett was a rarity as a white politician with a significant black political following. He served in Parliament from 2000 to 2006 and was a close ally and friend of Morgan Tsvangirai, the main opposition leader.

In 2003, the Charleswood Estate in Chimanimani, owned by Bennett and his family, was invaded. Bennett, who was by then a member of Parliament, condemned the seizure as illegal. In a raucous debate in Parliament, the country’s justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa, told Bennett that his ancestors had been “thieves and murderers.” In the heat of the argument, Bennett shoved Chinamasa to the ground and was imprisoned for a year for assault.

Granted early release for good behavior in 2005, Bennett complained of prison abuses, saying that he had been issued a uniform covered in excrement and lice, and made to stand naked in front of guards.

By then, Bennett had become a stalwart ally of the opposition party’s leader, Tsvangirai, and he was named the party’s general treasurer. Fearing rearrest, he fled to South Africa in 2006 and was eventually granted asylum there. But he agreed to return in 2008, when Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe in the first round of a presidential election.

Mugabe’s supporters complained that white farmers were returning “in droves” to reclaim their land under Tsvangirai, a charge that Bennett called “absolute nonsense.” But amid rising violence, Tsvangirai withdrew from the runoff, following a fierce internal debate.

“Pulling out of the elections now would be giving in to a violent dictator who is prepared to wage war on his own people to stay in power,” Bennett, who was acting as the party’s spokesman, said at the time.

Bennett was named deputy agriculture minister under a power-sharing government led by Mugabe and Tsvangirai as prime minister. But on his return to Zimbabwe in February 2009, he was promptly arrested and charged with treason, ostensibly in connection with a cache of arms found at his home in 2006. Tsvangirai denounced the arrest as politically motivated and warned that military intelligence officials — who remained loyal to Mugabe — had plotted to harm Bennett.

The government’s case was based mostly on testimony from a witness, Peter Michael Hitschman, who, it later emerged, had been tortured — his buttocks were burned with cigarettes — and was told that his wife and son would be harmed if he did not implicate Bennett. The trial began in October 2009. In March 2010, a judge ruled that Hitschman’s testimony had been coerced. That May, Bennett was acquitted.

Barred from joining the government, Bennett began to devote most of his time to farming in Zambia and South Africa; he also spent time in Colorado.

He is survived by a daughter, Casey, and a son, Charles.

Mugabe resigned in November, after an internal power struggle, and was replaced by his former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who this week pledged to hold “free and fair” elections in five months. But Bennett did not return.

Beatrice Mtetwa, a prominent human rights lawyer, praised Bennett as a patriot. “His passion for Zimbabwe will remain unmatched,” she said. “It was always ironic for me that those who claim to have fought for the country followed destructive policies, whilst he looked at making a better country for all who live in it.”