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Farmer defends private property rights

15 November 2013

Madeleine Davies examines a new book that arose out of a violent ordeal


Challenging:left: Ben Freeth, talking to the Deputy Prime Minster, Arthur Mutambara (centre), and journalists, at his farm in Chegutu, Zimbabwe, in 2009

Challenging:left: Ben Freeth, talking to the Deputy Prime Minster, Arthur Mutambara (centre), and journalists, at his farm in Chegutu, Zimbabwe, in ...

IN 2008, Ben Freeth, a Kent-born farmer living in Zimbabwe, was abducted, with his father-in-law, Mike Campbell, and Mr Campbell's wife, Angela, and subjected to a brutal beating at a militia camp. All three were eventually released, but only after Mrs Campbell had signed a paper promising to discontinue the court case her husband had brought, challenging a government order to leave Mount Carmel, the 30,000-acre farm that had been the family's home since the 1970s.

Mr Freeth's new book, When Governments Stumble, published last month, begins with a description of the abduction, his in-laws' "bloody, broken bodies", the impunity of their attackers, and the realisation that death might be imminent.

Speaking in London at the end of October, he insisted that "God's promise is he will never put any one of us through what we cannot bear." Nevertheless, his book is fuelled by a righteous anger at the outrages perpetrated not only against his family, but also against Zimbabwe, under the leadership of Robert Mugabe, a man he accuses of "beating the Zimbabwean people to a pulp".

When Governments Stumble contains elements of autobiography, but it is also both a challenge to a Church that, Mr Freeth suggests, has failed to speak truth to power, and an account of the author's political philosophy. The third chapter is entitled "How nations become poor and hungry: the erosion of property rights and the rule of law". Mr Freeth combines historical analysis - "History shows that without private property, nations starve" - with an account of his understanding of the Bible's teachings on property rights. By way of Ayn Rand, John Locke, and Abraham Lincoln, he seeks to make the case for the primacy of property rights. "If no man and no State can reach in to tax and confiscate his property, man can enjoy true freedom and great security whether he is prosperous or poor," he asserts.

"I do not think it is a political view necessarily," he said last week. "It is a God-given. Two of the Ten Commandments deal with property rights . . . it is very clear that property rights have to exist if things can be stolen from people. . . I have seen how lack of property rights creates poverty."

Given his family's experiences in Zimbabwe at the hands of the government, readers may not be surprised that he should be cautious about the power of the State.

He remains concerned that the Church is not standing up to President Mugabe. He finds signs of hope in the construction of large churches, but describes the Church as "the sleeping giant of our nation". Mr Mugabe, he argues, "realises it is a sleeping giant, and also wants to keep it the way it is, as Hitler did".

Mr Freeth is not without his detractors. After the publication of his previous book - Mugabe and the White African - Ian Scoones, research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, said that it gave a "disturbing insight into some of the extreme, delusional positions taken by some members of the white farming community. . . The absence of history and any reflection on the inequities in land and wealth created by colonialism is striking."

"What a lot of people do not seem to realise is that land reform had taken place already [before 2000]," Mr Freeth said last month. "Over half the land had already changed hands. But people that were being given land were not being given ownership. To do land reform in that way was not adding to the wealth of the nation because, as we all know, land that belongs to the State generally is not productive." The government, he said, had already been offered first option on buying Mount Carmel in 1999 and declined. He argued, too, that farming was a "specialist occupation . . . to think that 70 per cent of the population should be farmers is again an unrealistic, emotive argument. . . The very people that have been resettled are the ones that need food aid, because they are not specialist farmers."

Mr Campell died in 2011. He never fully recovered from the injuries that he sustained during the 2008 attack. Mr Freeth has since established the Mike Campbell Foundation in the UK, to "seek justice for victims of torture". The family's houses have been burned down and the farm stripped of its assets. Although the government has ignored a ruling by a Southern African Development Community tribunal in favour of the family, Mr Freeth continues to pursue his case through the courts.

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