The unkind hand of history
History has generally been unkind to wives of its notorious figures. Oft-times they have been represented as villainous characters who led their husbands astray as if those reprehensible men had no agency.
Indeed, despite being presented as all-powerful and domineering characters in every other sphere, the men seem to wilt before their wives, apparently succumbing to their command and direction. Even in theological texts, it is the woman who did it, persuading the innocent man to partake the forbidden fruit.
Mention the French Revolution and most people might have no clue who Louis XVI was. But they remember Marie Antoinette, his wife to whom that infamous line is attributed (some say wrongly). “Why don’t they eat cake?” she is alleged to have said upon hearing that Parisians were rioting over the shortage of bread. The appeal of that question lies in its encapsulation of the absolute monarchy’s detachment from reality. But it caricatures the woman, not the male ruler, whose misdeeds were far worse.
In the literary world, Shakespeare gave us Lady Macbeth, a notoriously ambitious woman who comes across as more villainous and more reprehensible and morally depraved than Macbeth himself. She is portrayed as the bad and manipulative influence that encourages an unsure and hesitant Macbeth to murder the king and do anything to ascend to the throne. Lady Macbeth dies a terrible death having succumbed to madness.
In modern times, China gave us Jiang Qing, Madame Mao, as she was also known, wife of the man whom history simply remembers as Chairman Mao. She was a prominent figure in the country’s infamous Cultural Revolution. In the Far East, there was Imelda Marcos, whose love of shoes made international headlines. She was the wife of another dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.
Even the wives of famous have not been spared. South Africa’s great hero is Nelson Mandela. Until her death last year, Winnie Mandela, his ex-wife who valiantly carried the torch during the fight against Apartheid when Mandela was in jail for 27 years was marginalised to almost a footnote by comparison. The hand of history unfairly magnified her misdeeds and ignored her heroic work.
Anyone who has followed the Zimbabwean story in the last two decades will probably have figured out that Grace Mugabe is the African version of this class of vilified and unpopular women. “Gucci Grace” as some called her in the media has been presented as an extravagant upstart who changed a formerly decent man into a villain. Her public antics in the three years before the coup that deposed Mugabe cemented the impression of an unhinged woman who caused her husband’s downfall.
Narratives of masculinity
There is something unsettling about the representation of women in these political stories, particularly in this age when gender equality and associated phenomena have become important features of political consciousness. They are the drivers or manifestations of the evil that their husbands do. Is it really because of their misdeeds that these women earn such notoriety? Or is it a manifestation of predominantly masculine narratives of history which tend to magnify the misdeeds of women as against those of their male partners or the misdeeds of males around their husbands?
There is a case to be made that these narratives of masculinity tend to promote this magnification and in so doing shift responsibility from their male counterparts. It is as if the men were merely victims of their manipulative wives and not independent actors or in the case of male associates, as if they were bystanders or bit-part players, whereas they may have been the conductors of the orchestra.
It is against this context that I look at the position of Grace Mugabe in the wake of her husband Robert Mugabe’s death. There is, of course, some irony in this exercise, because suddenly Grace’s future seems to matter more now that her husband is gone. Why should it be an issue when she has agency?
However, it would be foolhardy to ignore the reality of the political power-play over the last few years in which Grace became a key political actor, both in her own right and as an agent of other political actors, including her husband. That role also brought her into collision with other political actors most of whom are now the holders of political power in Zimbabwe. The death of her husband has removed a key player in that matrix of power and this has created a disequilibrium which may have far-reaching ramifications upon her personal circumstances. Where does the demise of her formerly powerful husband leave her?
Parallels with Madame Mao?
There are, of course, parallels in history and during the heady days of the battle to succeed Mugabe, I invoked the story of Madame Mao, who had become increasingly powerful during the later years of her husband’s rule, particularly during the infamous Cultural Revolution. In the process, she created many enemies. Soon after the death of Chairman Mao, Madame Mao and her allies known as the Gang of Four were arrested and prosecuted. Madame Mao later died in prison. She reportedly committed suicide.
In my public letter to Grace Mugabe in 2016, I recounted the fate of Madame Mao and the Gang of Four, warning of what might happen if her faction lost the succession battle and Mugabe was no longer on the scene. As events unfolded, Mugabe suffered a political death before his actual death when he was ousted in a coup in November 2017. This circumstance brought forward some of the things that would have happened in the wake of Mugabe’s actual death but postponed others.
Firstly, Grace’s allies were forced to flee the country, fearing for their lives. Two of them, Professor Jonathan Moyo and Saviour Kasukuwere, both cabinet ministers at the time had their homes shot at and ransacked on the eve of the coup. Their lives were in danger. They remain in exile to this day, although Kasukuwere went back for a while before he felt persecuted and fled again.
Others who are currently in exile are former ministers, Patrick Zhuwau who is also Mugabe’s nephew, Walter Mzembi, Mandiitawepi Chimene and former Police Commissioner, Augustine Chihuri.
Those who remained in Zimbabwe were arrested. Some of them, like former minister Ignatius Chombo is on bail, awaiting trial. Others, like Saviour Kasukuwere’s brother Dickson Mafios were convicted. He is currently serving his sentence. Mafios was publicly critical of Mnangagwa during the succession wars and sympathisers believe his case had more to do with political punishment. His situation has given credence to fears by the G40 faction that they will not be safe under the Mnangagwa regime.
There is a widely-held view that Mnangagwa’s anti-corruption campaign is disproportionately targeting political opponents while sparing his allies in the bruising battle to succeed Mugabe a couple of years ago.
However, in all this, the most prominent figure of the G40 faction, Grace remained in the country, together with her husband and children. This is how I summed up the situation in December 2017, just weeks after the coup,
“Her (Grace) main allies have either been arrested or fled into exile. The script is not quite the same as the fate that befell Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four, her allies in the late 1970s after the Chinese leader’s death. They all ended up in prison. In this case, Zimbabwe’s Jiang Qing has been silenced and is only safe on account of her husband whom the winners of the succession race still respect. Her allies were forced to flee the country.”
What happens next?
However, Mugabe’s death has created a new dynamic. If the Mnangagwa regime held back on his account, will they change their approach now that Mugabe is gone and Grace is alone, exposed and vulnerable? Will her old enemies maintain the facade? Have they forgotten and forgiven everything that Grace said or did during the succession period?
Mugabe was the great shield. They could never have publicly humiliated him during his lifetime for fear of upsetting the neighbours whose support the regime needs. Mnangagwa knew that Mugabe still commanded a great deal of respect across the African region. They would have regarded any action against him as humiliating and disagreeable. After all, they had supported Mnangagwa when he usurped power but in return, he was expected to treat the old warrior with dignity. Likewise, going after his wife would have been regarded as an indirect assault upon Mugabe.
Nevertheless, even though they continued to receive state support, the Mugabe family still complained of mistreatment and harassment by the Mnangagwa regime. When the African Union Chairman paid him a courtesy call in February 2018, Mugabe expressed his woes. “They told you I was safe, but how can I be in this environment?,” he was quoted as having told the AU Chairman by the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper. “My wife is crying daily. They are persecuting her … What am I without my wife and family? We are not safe,” he continued. The irony is that these noble thoughts never crossed Mugabe’s mind when his regime victimised and terrorised citizens.
At the time, Mugabe was moaning over the arrest of Professor Levy Nyagura, the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe, the institution which awarded Grace a controversial PhD degree in 2014. He saw it as harassment targeting his wife whom he defended as having “worked day and night” for the PhD, apparently with some assistance from him. Nyagura’s case is still pending in the courts of law and it hangs over Grace’s head like the sword of Damocles. If Nyagura is convicted, that could have serious implications for Grace.
The Mnangagwa regime may have put up a public show of supporting and looking after the Mugabes but the facade was hard to maintain. The regime did go after close members of the extended family. Grace’s sister, a Mrs Gumbochuma was arrested and is currently out on bail. Mugabe’s nephews, Albert Mugabe and Walter Chidhakwa were also arrested on corruption charges. Both were senior public officers, with Chidhakwa being a former Minister.
There are also other legal matters which will affect Grace but are outside the immediate control of the government. However, for someone who was so used to the protection of the state even for patently unlawful conduct, it will seem like persecution and the lack of protection might appear like neglect. On the other hand, if the government interferes in such matters, it will be accused of abusing its power to protect the privileged elites.
These matters include the criminal charges pending in South Africa over the alleged assault of a young woman, Gabriella Engels, in August 2017. That incident caused a diplomatic stir between South Africa and Zimbabwe when the latter controversially invoked diplomatic immunity, saving her from arrest and prosecution.
However, this shield is no longer available after a South African court lifted the diplomatic immunity on the grounds the responsible minister in South Africa had acted unconstitutionally. This means Grace is liable to arrest and prosecution in South Africa. With the diplomatic immunity lifted there is nothing that the Mnangagwa regime can do to protect her without facing charges of abusing power.
Another legal matter is where Grace was sued by a Lebanese businessman, Jamal Ahmed back in 2016, over a botched $1,2 million diamond ring deal. Grace had allegedly dispossessed the Lebanese dealer of his properties in Harare in place of a refund for the diamond ring which she had paid for but no longer wanted. The diamond ring was meant to be a present to Mugabe on their 20th wedding anniversary. The police appeared to protect her at the time but the Lebanese businessman has since won the case in the courts of law.
As if these aren’t enough troubles it emerged last year that her lawyers in that and other cases, Manase and Manase were suing her for legal fees amounting to over $US200,000.
Barely two weeks ago, ZESA, Zimbabwe’s electricity provider switched off power to the Mugabes’ family business on grounds of unpaid bills. It took the political intervention the Minister of Energy and Power Development to restore electricity to the businesses. Given what we now know, the government’s intervention may have been on compassionate grounds – the family was already in precarious circumstances with Mugabe on his death-bed.
But this was just a reprieve. The fact that a state-owned company had taken such drastic action was an indication that the fear factor over the Mugabes was gone. Would this moratorium be extended again in future? Perhaps unlikely. It is common knowledge that businesses of political elites have taken advantage of their political proximity which has seen them dodging bills and other state obligations. The Mugabes’ businesses were already struggling and this has worsened after the loss of political power and the freebies that sustained them. This will probably get worse.
It’s also likely that other disgruntled parties only held back from taking legal action on account of their respect for or fear of Mugabe. His demise may open floodgates of litigation against Grace, Mugabe’s estate and their businesses. Indeed, there may be a flurry of legal actions by victims, trying their chances against the estate.
The family probably stashed away its loot in foreign countries. Would exile be safer? It’s an option that cannot be discounted but there is no guarantee of safety there either.
Villains and Victims
It is very easy for people to blame the Marie Antoinettes and Lady Macbeths of this world; to place upon their shoulders the weight of failure and in the process, shift responsibility from their husbands. The wives become more fiendish in our eyes compared to their husbands who are even portrayed as victims of their manipulative wives. Yet in truth, these men have full agency and must be held accountable for their iniquitous ways in their own right without parcelling out their culpability to the women in their lives.
The idea of representing Mugabe as a victim of a manipulative Grace is popular but it ignores the fact that Mugabe himself was a Machiavellian character, supremely gifted in the art of manipulation and using anyone, to protect his power. It’s a feature that runs throughout his life, indeed dating back long before Grace appeared on the scene. Gukurahundi, the greatest crime of his tenure, had already happened. Grace was just a schoolgirl at the time. An incorrigibly corrupt system was already in place. Mugabe had long consolidated his power.
Did she accelerate the demise? Perhaps she did but she was not, as many have accused her, the cause of Mugabe’s multiple failings. If she is guilty of not stopping Mugabe’s killing machine in the 2000s, then how can Sally, his first wife, be innocent of the same charge when she was married to him during Gukurahundi? Yet by many accounts, Sally is often represented as the good one and Grace as the bad one. It is said that Mugabe took a turn for the worse when he married Grace. It’s a simplistic narrative which grossly underestimates Mugabe’s agency unaffected by the women in his life. It could have been any woman, Mugabe would have wanted to stay in power for as long as he liked.
Interestingly, the narrative which makes Grace the accused-in-chief ignores and almost exonerates the men in Mugabe’s life – the politicians, the generals, the bureaucrats- all of whom were far more influential in the management of public affairs. These were by far the real actors in Mugabe’s political life – the water-carriers who served him faithfully until they decided to betray him. Ironically, it is these men who propagated the “Chinhu Chedu” (Our Thing) mentality leading to the coup. They were with him long before Grace appeared on the scene.
An uncertain future
As for life after Mugabe, it will be precarious and uncertain for Grace and her family. Grace’s allies know their future lies in a post-Mnangagwa political scenario or one in which there is a cast-iron political settlement. There is far too much animosity for there to be any trust between them. The succession war was brutal and divisive. Grace was right at the centre of it and she would be naive to think the past is forgotten and forgiven. The story of Madame Mao and the Gang of Four is as relevant now as it was three years ago when I wrote the public Letter to Mother.
She is young and if she is as favoured as her husband was, there is still a long future ahead. Can she rely on oral guarantees by the regime? It would be foolhardy to take the oral word seriously. In any event, there is far too much to keep the toad jumping in broad daylight. Time in power created many enemies. The regime might not move to take action against her. It will simply do nothing to protect her when others do so. It will be just as painful. But that is the life that all ordinary Zimbabweans face daily. She will have to adapt and get used to it. The season of power is over.