As former president Robert Mugabe and his second wife, Grace Mugabe, prepare to make their exit from Zimbabwe’s State House, Zimbabweans have hankered for “Amai” (Mother) Sally, his late first wife, who is fondly remembered as a “very sensitive and intelligent woman” who may have been a ““restraining influence” on her husband.
“As developments continue to unfold in #Zimbabwe #RobertMugabe might be looking back and wondering if … his rule wasn’t a tale of two wives. One that died too soon and the other that ended up being his Achilles heel. #ThisFlag #SaveZim”
With almost 2,000 retweets, it is the kind of misogynist narrative that has found an easy resonance in many quarters of a country that has been ruled by the heavy hand of a patriarchal nationalist tradition for nearly four decades. Across the many rallies and marches in Zimbabwe, many people sang “Hatidi kutongwa nehure” [We do not want to be ruled by a whore]. Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association Chairman Chris Mutsvangwa described Grace Mugabe as “clinically mad,” and Temba Mliswa, a member of parliament from the ruling Zanu-PF party, has claimed that “Robert Mugabe’s legacy has been destroyed by his wife. He’s old, he’s aging, and they’ve taken advantage of him.”
As Mugabe’s party rebrands itself, it is using a simplistic narrative that absolves both Mugabe and Zanu-PF of their political blunders, sweeping all that went wrong into a Grace Mugabe-sized hole.
Is it really “a tale of two wives”? Let’s start with “Amai” Sally Mugabe and whether she was a “restraining force” on her husband. Having met Mugabe at a teacher training college in her native Ghana, Sally Mugabe, nee Hayfron, married Mugabe in 1961. She became increasingly involved in nationalist political trenches in the ’60s, leading campaigns for the release of Zimbabwean political prisoners, including her husband, while in exile in London. Once her husband was released, she campaigned for the safety and well-being of refugees of the Second Chimurenga (liberation war) while in Mozambique. In 1980, she joined her husband, Zimbabwe’s first black prime minister, at the helm of the country and officially became first lady seven years later, when he assumed the presidency. By 1989, she was elected secretary general of the Zanu-PF Women’s League. Outside of politics, Sally continued to be popular for her involvement in welfare programs through organizations such as the Zimbabwe Child Survival Movement and Zimbabwe Women’s Co-operative.
A popular leader at home and abroad at the time, Mugabe was meanwhile consolidating and centralizing his post-independence power through constitutional and forceful means. In 1984, Zanu-PF’s congress gave Mugabe extensive powers to appoint the executive members of the party and passed constitutional amendments that created the executive presidency. Most importantly the early ’80s, Sally was by his side during the “Gukurahundi” (Shona for “the first rains, which wash away the chaff before the spring rains”), the genocide of more than 20,000 Ndebele people. The violent campaign was aimed at quelling the threat of political dissidents; incoming President Emmerson Mnangagwa was a key figure in the massacres.
As Sally Mugabe became increasingly ill with kidney failure in the late ’80s, Robert Mugabe began his affair with Grace Ntombizodwa Marufu, a young married mother and a typist in the president’s office at the time. In 1992, Sally Mugabe died in Harare at the age of 60. As Zimbabwean academic Alex Magaisa points out, for Mugabe, the loss of Sally represented a loss of a close companion and, importantly, a peer. Mugabe married Grace in a spectacular ceremony four years later.
Compared with Sally, who was loved for her apparent sense of modesty and public work, Grace Mugabe became increasingly unpopular for her lavish lifestyle in the midst the economic fallout of the 2000s. She largely stayed out of politics. This changed by 2014, when she began her foray into politics through her election as president of Zanu-PF’s Women’s League. Though unpopular, Grace Mugabe continued to consolidate power through the support of the “G40 faction,” made up mostly of a younger generation of Zanu-PF members who did not participate in the Second Chimurenga.
Invoking the fist often associated with her husband, Grace Mugabe included in her acceptance speech for the Zanu-PF post threats to those who opposed her: “I might have a small fist, but when it comes to fighting I will put stones inside to enlarge it, or even put on gloves to make it bigger. Do not doubt my capabilities.” Grace Mugabe’s unpopularity has only kept pace with the kind of hostile language she has increasingly used in her fiery speeches, rhetoric she clearly learned from the man who mentored her over the years.
If we were to hazard that it was “a tale of two Mugabes” instead of “two wives,” that still would be misleading. As Percy Zvomuya points out, Mugabe has been fairly consistent, famously stating in 1976 that “Our votes must go together with our guns. After all, any vote we shall have shall have been the product of the gun. The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer, its guarantor. The people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.”
However popular or unpopular Mugabe may have been with general populace, the real guarantor of his power has always been the gun, as represented by the military and the war veterans. Over the past 37 years, the relationship between Mugabe and his “guns” has not been entirely smooth, but the relationship has largely remained intact as he gave in to their various demands and safeguarded their interests. In turn, he has relied on their force to guard him against dissent from organized labor and civic groups. What has been Mugabe’s undoing over the past few years is that at the height of popular dissent with his rule, he increasingly undermined the interests of his “guns” in favor of Grace Mugabe’s G40 faction. The final straw was to remove his longtime ally (and now successor) Mnangagwa.
Grace Mugabe is no saint. But she has also done nothing without Robert Mugabe’s endorsement (and indeed that of many others in the party). The political fallout cannot be put down to an aging leader’s being led astray by an overbearing or too ambitious wife. Given the evidence of Mugabe’s career trajectory, the extent to which first ladies Grace or “Amai” Sally could have restrained their husband is unclear, but even more importantly, it is neither here nor there.
The common denominator in both marriages has been Robert Mugabe, a man who has more than proved himself a skilled and shrewd politician. It was his political mistake to undermine the “guns” that guaranteed his power for so long. It is at best simplistic and at worst misogynistic to hold Sally or Grace Mugabe accountable for their husband’s political missteps.
Panashe Chigumadzi is an essayist and novelist who was born in Zimbabwe and is based in South Africa.