Page last updated at 11:35 GMT, Wednesday, 21 October 2009 12:35 UK

Betting the farm against Mugabe

By Tom de Castella

Born and raised in Britain, Ben Freeth has become one of a handful of farmers in Zimbabwe to resist, often against violent intimidation, the seizure of his land. Now his fight is the subject of a film.

Freeth and Campbell and farm workers
Ben Freeth and his father-in-law, Michael Campbell, with their workers

How far would you go to keep your home? Most of us would consider legal action. But would you be willing to take on a dictator in court and risk the lives of your family?

Ben Freeth has made that decision. The Briton along with his Zimbabwean family has for the past few years been in a tug of war for land with President Robert Mugabe, the country's strong and ruthless leader.

The 40-year-old Freeth was born and brought up in Kent, and learned his farming skills at Cirencester agricultural college. He moved to Zimbabwe in 1996 where he settled down with his Zimbabwean wife, Laura, on her family's Mount Carmel farm, 70 miles south west of the capital, Harare.

The fruit farm was once the biggest producer of mangoes in the country and supplied Marks & Spencer but since 2005 has been under virtual siege from militias intent on seizing the land.

Now the family's refusal to abandon their home has been captured in an undercover documentary, Mugabe and the White African, which premieres in Britain on Wednesday night at the London Film Festival. The white African of the title is Michael Campbell, Mr Freeth's Zimbabwean father-in-law, who owns the farm and in 2008 took the government of Zimbabwe to an international court.

Savage beating

The case was simple: the family claimed they were being targeted for one reason - their colour. Their aim was to set a legal precedent that whites had the same right to legal protection as any other oppressed minority.

Farm workers in Matebeleland
Whites took land from Zimbabwe's black farmers by force at the start of the 20th Century
Before 2000, just 4,400 white farmers held a third of Zimbabwe's land - much of it the best farms
A million black peasant farmers scratched a living on about the same area
Since then all but a handful of white-owned land has been seized

The case was heard by the Southern African Development Community tribunal in Namibia, and it is this unprecedented legal challenge that forms the narrative spine of the British-made documentary.

Mr Freeth says there were numerous stalling tactics by government lawyers who tried to wear the family down with costly delays. Then days before the case was due to be heard, Mr Freeth, Mr Campbell and his wife Angela were horrifically beaten after refusing to call off the case.

While Mr Campbell's injuries prevented him from travelling to Namibia, Mr Freeth was in court to hear the judges rule that the government's move to "nationalise" white farmland was illegal and racially discriminatory. (See factbox, right for background.)

It was a historic victory. And yet the film concludes on a chilling note. Not only has Zimbabwe's government refused to accept the verdict of the southern African body of which it is a member. But in September the Freeths' home and the houses of their workers were burnt down. The family appears to have lost everything.

But Mr Freeth, whose moustachioed appearance and stoical good humour owes something to a Victorian explorer, says the family will never give in to the violence and intimidation which he believes can be traced back to Mr Mugabe.

"We were in a position where we were going to lose everything anyway. So you realise there's nothing to lose, you have to fight for it."

Mad stoicism?

The family is living in temporary accommodation near the farm and visit their workers most days to give moral support and clear away the fire damage. The plan is to rebuild the workers' houses, restart his wife's laundry business before reconstructing the family home.

Laura Freeth
Mr Freeth's wife, Laura, is hoping to restart her laundry business

Watching the film, many will admire the family's determination. But some may feel such stubbornness in the face of a regime associated with violent retribution is mad, especially with three children aged four, seven and nine.

But Mr Freeth and his wife are committed Christians and believe they have been put there for a reason by God.

"If no-one is prepared to do anything then you're in effect ending the lives of all the children and this country's future. The people will end up in camps being beaten, brainwashed and taught to hate us (white people). We need to make a difference. We can't just up sticks and run away. That's what a third of the population has done and it is not going to help."

He knows they risk being killed.

"It's always a possibility under a dictator. Does that stop you?"

Last year, Mr Mugabe was compared to Hitler, by a South African Anglican bishop, and Mr Freeth refers to how appeasement allowed the Nazis to dominate Europe.

"If more people had stood up to Hitler perhaps he wouldn't have been able to massacre six million Jews. You have to take some risks."

The British directors of the film, Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson, were also taking a huge gamble.

Camera smuggling

Western journalists were banned from working in Zimbabwe and by shooting a feature film there - the first for many years - they risked imprisonment. Much of the film was shot covertly but as a self confessed "camera snob" Thompson insisted on smuggling in a large format camera to ensure the film would make an impact on the big screen.

Robert Mugabe
Mr Mugabe has faced increasing international criticism

Thompson has worked in Iraq, Gaza and Afghanistan but says nowhere was as terrifying as Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

"There's a culture of fear and no rule of law. You've got the isolation of the rural areas with these armed militias out and about. It's so tough for the family. One day Ben is in the supermarket queue standing beside someone, the next night this person is out on the farm with a machete vowing to kill his children."

There will be awkward moments for western audiences not used to the paternalistic relationship between white farmers and their black workforce. But the film-makers argue the fate of the workers and white farmers are inextricably linked.

Thompson believes it is time for people to see white people in Africa differently. "I think the story very clearly debunks the view that white people shouldn't be in Africa. It's in the same vein as people in Britain who say blacks shouldn't live here - we call them Nazis. The subject is a hot potato but we make it clear that yes, you can be white and African."

Having won in the courts, Mr Freeth hopes the film will ratchet up international pressure on President Mugabe. In practice, the octogenarian leader controls the police, army and judges and in the rural areas the violent attacks have intensified.

If Zimbabwe is ever to recover, Mr Freeth believes white farmers will be part of its reconstruction.

"We know it'll take huge amounts of money to get Zimbabwe back on its feet. And without property rights there's no way that agriculture can get up and running again."

His latest idea for the film reveals chutzpah to go with the stubbornness - he wants to arrange a screening in Harare. Like so much of what he sets out to do, one wonders if he may eventually get his way.

Mugabe and the White African will be shown at the London Film Festival on Wednesday 21 October and Friday 23 October. For details, see internet links, above right.

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