Ben Freeth's speech - text

“Hope in a Desert”

Speech by Ben Freeth at the Royal Geographical Society, London

7 March 2013

It seems to many of us that hope became a mirage in Zimbabwe when Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) went into the Government of National Unity and diamonds were discovered.  We knew the diamonds would be looted and be used to strengthen and build the war chest of a political elite who were corrupt to the very core.   Perhaps Zimbabwe has been a little like this picture of our younger son Stephen - in a waterless, lifeless, barren desert. The only thing the ordinary person can hope to do in a desert is just survive.  There is the same featureless horizon in every direction and it is easy to go around in circles like a boomerang. 

Ben Freeth

I could embark on a long catalogue of abuse but I am going to focus on something different – even though it’s becoming clear that Zimbabwe will burn again this year and the horror of what happened to 12-year-old Christpower Maisiri is only the start.  Eleven days ago he was burnt alive in his house because he was the son of an MDC activist.

Last year our sons, Joshua (12) and Stephen (10), designed and built a go-cart with bicycle wheels and wood, and we decided to sail it across a desert known as the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana.  This would involve about a hundred miles of sailing across a vast expanse of nothing. 

Some of you may have seen the Top Gear team crossing the salt pans – the first crossing by car.  You will remember the dust in the air; and the mud just beneath the paper-thin crust.  Our crossing was to be the first crossing using the wind.  

After a while, unfortunately, despite August being a windy month traditionally, the wind died. 

We had a “council of war” and took into consideration that our water supply could only be eked out for a maximum of a week.  We could sit in the middle of the desert and just survive, hoping that the wind would blow, or we could push on to where we intended to go.  Like the Johnny Walker advert, we decided to “keep on walking.”

We slept out in the open – and on the second night we found a rock to shelter by which we named “cricket rock” because the brief, shrill chirping of a single cricket was the only life we heard on the whole crossing.  There wasn’t an ant, or a bird or any other living creature all the way across.

In the morning there was still no wind and the boys voted that we “keep on walking.”  So we did.

A little later we found a fossilizing grasshopper.  There obviously had been life here at one time, even if there was no life now. 

Then we found many dead and fossilised flamingos.

Just beneath the crust there was mud - and in some place it was hard to “keep on walking”. But we kept going all the same.  

After walking for hours and hours in intense heat, under a merciless sun, we finally caught sight of what we had been hoping to see for a long time, far in the distance. Land ho!

That is perhaps where we are now in Zimbabwe. 

But is it just a mirage hovering on the horizon?  And if it is not, what does it signify peeping up so elusively from under the curvature of the earth in the wasteland that we are in figuratively, in Zimbabwe right now?

I have thought much on this subject for many years through many ghastly situations where everything we had was destroyed before our eyes; and I have carried on thinking.  Many of you will know how we have stood for property rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe and many of you will know how we, and so many others, lost everything that we owned - and many people, including Mike Campbell, have lost their lives in this desert into the bargain.  

I have come to the conclusion that the rock in this featureless plain, the oasis in this waterless desert, the engine that could drive us forward and power us into a land away from where hope has been dashed so many times, is something utterly simple, and so completely obvious that many seem to have missed it.  It is encapsulated in a single word.   The land at the end of the straight-line compass-bearing in the desert is, quite simply, “truth”. 

When the truth stumbles and falls, everything else falls apart.  Dictators have two tools at their disposal to continue tyranny.  They are “fear” and “lies”.  Only courage and truth can counter them so that we can walk on in the direction that is right and true. 

The implementation of the law - that we have heard about today - is all about establishing the truth as measured against the law.  In courts we swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”  The law and justice cannot operate without people who are adherents to the truth.

Sustainable economic growth cannot be achieved either without the truth.  In economies where dishonesty is all-pervasive, corruption eats up honest people’s livelihoods, and where there is no protection of property rights, failure is always the net result.        

I wish to take you back through time to follow a thread of history involving a man from Yorkshire.  He was called John Wycliffe – the so-called “morning star of the reformation”.  Wycliffe had taken to heart the words that “the truth will set you free” and he did everything that he could to promote the truth.  An Oxford history professor wrote this of his influence on history:

“To Wycliffe we owe, more than to any one person who can be mentioned, our English language, our English Bible, and our reformed religion… Wycliffe we have the acknowledged Father of English prose…”

Wycliffe spent a lifetime walking towards the truth and making it available to others.  He knew that “the truth will set you free’.  When Wycliffe died, his body was exhumed and burnt – but though bad men can try to burn the truth, it does not burn.   Though they can try to destroy truth with lies, it cannot be destroyed.

Another man, Jan Hus, who was from Bohemia, was profoundly influenced by Wycliffe’s teaching on the truth. He was eventually burnt at the stake, and Wycliffe’s papers were used to burn him.  But you cannot burn the truth.

Hus had sent missionaries of the truth, the Moravians, throughout Europe;  and John Wesley was later converted by them.  Wesley was a follower of the truth and, more than any other, influenced the movement that men like Wilberforce ran with - to eradicate the world of slavery and other injustice.  As men and women walked towards the truth rather than avoiding it, the truth brought great social, scientific and economic discoveries and progress.  

After this truth had eventually become truly established in the hearts and minds of many of the people of Britain, great missionaries went out from this land and gave their lives to establish beacons of truth in places where the truth had not been established.  The Puritans laid the foundation of America and, within 129 years of getting Independence, had helped to transform America into the wealthiest, most powerful and most innovative country on earth. 

The industrial revolution – what historians acknowledge as the most important event in world economic history – started in this country because there was a thirst, an understanding and a will to walk towards the truth. 

Men like Robert Moffat and David Livingstone went out from this very room clutching the truth… and the truth began to be established where it had not been before.

Jan Hus said that: “truth conquers”.   Vaclav Havel, the great Czech playwright, dissident and first post-Communist president of the Czech Republic, treasured that motto: “truth conquers” as the country’s motto and there is a national holiday to celebrate it.  Truth drove Havel and the others with him to tear down the tyranny that was closing them into the desert.

“For hundreds of years,” Havel said, “the name of the master Jan Hus has been inscribed in the mind of the nation, especially for his deep love of the truth.”  

In Africa today, what we need more than anything else in all the world is leaders to walk towards the truth.  The truth has to become the primary focus.  We need men and women to understand, value most profoundly, and stand very boldly for the truth in their personal business and public lives.

The greatest African family of leaders I know of are the Khamas.   Khama the third – a convert of those early missionaries who went out from this very room - walked towards truth.  Put simply, the reason why Botswana today is by far the least corrupt country in Africa and one of the least corrupt in the world, as well as being the second wealthiest country in Africa, is a direct result of the truth being established in Khama’s heart.  This achievement is despite the fact that Botswana is a land-locked country, with up to 70 percent covered by the Kalahari desert – and that it was the third poorest country in the world at Independence in 1966.

 Khama was born very close to the salt pans you saw in the previous pictures.  He fixed his eyes on the truth and he walked towards it, step by step, until the truth emerged as something that breathed life into himself, his family and his country.

I want to show you a picture I took just over a month ago of a fence with a barren area on the one side and lush green grass on the other.

 Zimbabwe’s lack of any real progress since independence, compared with Botswana’s, has been rather like this picture. 

This is a graph of the difference, in Gross Domestic Product per capita, between Zimbabwe and Botswana.

GDP per capita comparison:  Botswana and Zimbabwe

Before the diamonds had even started being mined, Botswana had the fastest growing economy in the world.  Sir Seretse Khama was known primarily as a man of complete integrity – a man, who like his grandfather, prized the truth and walked towards it.   

Sir Seretse Khama

Where truth reigns, tyranny, quite simply, falls.  Where men and women have the courage and tenacity to walk on towards the truth we will see the desert start to blossom.

Where the truth is prized above all other cardinal values it holds families, communities, businesses  and nations together.

As the Mike Campbell Foundation, we are trying to focus on walking on the compass bearing towards the truth.

 Last month we filed our papers in The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights regarding the illegal suspension of the SADC Tribunal. This prevents 150 million people in southern Africa from having the right to access justice - when the justice systems in their own countries fail them.   

Last week we were in the Constitutional Court in South Africa before 10 Judges regarding the registration of our SADC Tribunal Judgment.  Over the weekend the newspapers reported President Mugabe as having said that he would ignore what these judges said – he is obviously expecting to lose.

In just over a week Zimbabwe will hold a referendum on a new draft Constitution. It is a political compromise and a long way from the truth, with Orwellian, “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” clauses like – and I quote - “discrimination is unfair.. unless it is found to be fair...” 

In this constitution, when our homes and livelihoods are taken away from us on agricultural land, we are expressly barred from even going to court; and are also expressly barred from raising the issue that we might have been discriminated against.  These clauses take us back into the desert.

In the meantime we have been working with ex-farm workers, people who have suffered intense persecution, trying to help them to walk towards the truth. 

In a country which cannot feed itself any more, and which has relied on the rest of the world coming in with food aid to stop its people from starving, this is a picture of a man who understands truth and is running with it.  Two weeks ago he was in prison for 3 nights– arrested from a church with his Pastor and a civic society member for having held a meeting without police clearance.  However, you cannot imprison the truth. 

Khama the third’s father once said to Khama’s brother:  “We think like this” and he drew a circle in the dust on the ground. 

“But Khama,” he said, “thinks like this.”  And he drew a straight line.   

BEN FREETH MBE                               








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The Mike Campbell Foundation seeks justice for victims of torture and abuse in Zimbabwe; Works towards the restoration of the rule of law; Assists those forced to live in extreme poverty with survival skills; Brings hope where there is only despair.

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