EVER since the December 2014 Zanu PF annual conference, the single biggest development has been the meteoric rise of Grace Mugabe, President Robert Mugabe’s second wife and mother of their three young children. In the run up to that conference, Grace Mugabe jumped head first into Zimbabwe’s noisy political scene.
With a fawning state media in tow, Grace Mugabe has achieved the seemingly impossible; with the tacit approval of her husband, 91-year-old Robert Mugabe, she has managed to banish provincial governors and others perceived as aligned to rival factions of the party. Rugare Gumbo, Ray Kaukonde, Didymus Mutasa and Nicholas Goche are some of the big names who have tasted the wrath of Grace, so to speak.
What set tongues wagging however was the ouster of former State Vice President, Joice Mujuru (born Runaida Mugari), a highly decorated veteran of the Second Chimurenga. Until her unceremonious expulsion, Mujuru had been the very symbol of Chimurenga, the liberation struggle that ushered Zimbabwe from colonial domination.
Mujuru was a shining example of female achievement and empowerment. After all, she had risen above rural obscurity to achieve the seemingly impossible; the little Runaida Mugari, a school dropout from Mt. Darwin threw her lot with Chimurenga and rose to be a commander in ZANLA, ZANU’s armed wing.
At independence, Mugabe surprised the then 24-year illiterate war commander by appointing her Minister of Youth! (To illustrate the journey she has traveled, Mujuru once recalled asking Cephas Msipa, her Permanent Secretary, to give ministerial presentations on her behalf because she simply could not read!) But that is a story for another day.
Ever since ruining Mujuru, whose own husband, kingmaker Solomon Mujuru, perished in a yet-to-be-explained farmhouse fire in 2013, Grace Mugabe’s every move has been analyzed for signs that she may, in fact, be interested in the big prize itself; the presidency of the party and ultimately, of the country. She has literally outshouted the man who, for long, was perceived as coveting the presidency, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Blessed with relative youth, Grace Mugabe has commandeered government resources to criss-cross the teapot-shaped land of Kaguvi and Nehanda to scold and banish opponents as well as to hand out donated government equipment such as the tractors from the government-to-government deal between Zimbabwe and Brazil although she holds no government post. Sensing the dire risks of crossing swords with presidential secretary-turned-first lady, the other Vice President, Phelekezela Mphoko, has quietly assumed the strange role of Grace’s travelling companion on her whirlwind cross country tours where the first lady’s sword has slashed left, middle and right.Advertisement
Grace has openly threatened the privately-owned media, whipped party functionaries into line and even dared the country’s liberation war veterans, a vociferous band of genuine and assumed fighters that once drowned President Robert Mugabe’s speech by singing and playing drums at a televised event, forcing him to give them outrageous cash handouts for fighting in the Chimurenga. Despite everything pointing towards a president Grace Mugabe, I suggest that this is nothing short of utter miscalculation on her part. Here is why.
First, despite the Munhu Wese Kuna Amai (Let’s All Rally Behind Mother Grace Mugabe) clamour, the first lady has not seized the levers of power even within her party. As a very recent newcomer to the political game, Grace Mugabe mistakes loudness for victory. It is one thing to dominate state media to excoriate opponents and quite another to rally the party machinery behind her cause. Grace Mugabe has zero stage presence, negative charisma and no sense of political communication.
For all his monumental faults, her husband can still slow down, look a person in the eye and crack truly original jokes even at a funeral. By contrast, Grace is like of those transistor radios that you sometimes encounter in your rural uncle’s home, yes, the one with a broken volume control knob, yes, one that nearly shatters your eardrum when you turn it on.
To listen to Grace Mugabe is to listen to a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, yet signifying nothing, to borrow from a famous English playwright. And speaking of things English, perhaps those tutors at the University of London who kicked Grace Mugabe from their BA in English programme after five years of study were trying to tell us something about the intellectual weight of our first lady.
For someone with next to zero political experience until the December 2014 Conference when she bullied her way to the driving seat of the Zanu PF Women’s League, it is not surprising that she lacks genuine strategy beyond running her enemies out of town. So far, the sum of her master plan has been bluster, often characterized by public humiliation of senior party and government officials.
That does not earn her genuine respect within the various party organs. What this means is that Grace Mugabe has cowed but not destroyed her opponents. Even more importantly, her modus operandi has meant that she has alienated long-serving members of the party who will outlive her husband. After all, the guy is a jaw-dropping 91 in a country where fellow men live all of 55 years on average!
Secondly, history teaches us that first ladies often make very poor successors, usually with calamitous results for themselves and their nations. The reasons are varied but the most obvious one is simply that leadership at the highest level is quite simply not sexually transferrable, to put it bluntly. To fall in love is, after all, just a happy accident. 14 million Zimbabweans need not be victimized by that accident.
Elena Ceaușescu, wife of Romania’s communist dictator, Nikolai Ceaușescu, became Romania’s president in all but name in the dying years of Communism in Eastern Europe. She controlled all access to an increasingly senile President Ceaușescu, built a personality cult so extreme that state television was not allowed to show her in profile because of her long nose. She came to be addressed as “Mother of the Nation” by her obsequious praise singers.
Hmmm… have we seen someone literally wearing a similarly inflated title in Zimbabwe? Despite leaving school at just 14, Elena Ceaușescu graduated from the University of Bucharest with a PhD in polymer chemistry and top in a class of 100 women with the honor of summa cum laude (with the highest distinction). After her husband’s fall, various scientists claimed they had been forced to write parts of it.
Wasn’t there a story about a certain first lady somewhere in southern Africa who reportedly “studied” for a DPhil (or Ph.D) in a matter of months and now carries the oddly inharmonious title of “Dr. Amai” to this day? Indeed, Elena’s personality cult eclipsed that of her husband in a way not too different from the nauseating “Munhu Wese Kuna Amai” mania we are witnessing. In the wake of 1989 revolution, both Ceausescu were caught while attempting to flee, tried, convicted and shot by firing squad.
Closer to home, former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo’s wife, Simone, styled herself a second-in-command of sorts although she was really little more than a member of parliament. The self-described Hillary Clinton des tropiques (Hillary Clinton of the Tropics) cut a disgraceful figure in 2011 when the pro-Alassane Ouattara forces closed in and dragged her out of the State House. Charged mainly with organizing armed gangs to resist Outtara, winner of the 2010 election, Mrs. Gbagbo was convicted earlier this year and jailed for 20 years. Her husband is also in detention at The Hague, charged with similarly grave crimes.
Thirdly, Grace Mugabe simply commands no respect within and without Zanu PF. Oppah Muchinguri, Phillip Chiyangwa, Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko and others who have thrown their lot with her have only done so to ensure their own temporary survival. Chiyangwa, despite his reported wealth and whispered family relations with Robert Mugabe, has failed to lead in his home province of Mashonaland West. So bad is his record that he has even been arrested for espionage and is now social media’s self-named King of Selfies.
Mphoko was an embarrassment before his new role as Grace Mugabe’s coat bearer; he has no solid liberation war record and knows his raison d’etre is to pacify the non-Shona-speaking population of the country. He is exactly what he looks; an empty shell. Grace Mugabe’s camp is therefore just a band of directionless posers with no proven leadership, charisma or profiles worth a second look.
The Munhu Wese Kuna Amai cacophony is nothing but a runaway train. It is running and a few unfortunate individuals will be run over but we all know what happens to runaway trains; a wreck!
Murenga Joseph Chikowero holds a Ph.D in African Literature, English and Film Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His short stories have been published in Where to Now?: Short Stories from Zimbabwe. He co-edited the newly-published The Art of Survival: Depictions of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwean in Crisis. He writes in his personal capacity.