I spent a lot of time in Zimbabwe in the mid-2000s, as the head of a human rights organization that worked across Southern Africa. Even at the height of the political turmoil in 2008, when opposition figures were assaulted in the aftermath of a stolen election, I was often struck by how deeply respectful Zimbabweans were of their president. Many people were obviously unhappy with Robert Mugabe’s leadership. Still, it was not unusual to hear people reference his role in the independence movement, to point out his clear intellectual gifts and his efforts to advance education.
They had no such respect, however, for his wife. Grace Mugabe did not have a history in the liberation movement. She had done nothing for Zimbabwe under colonialism — she was too young. Ms. Mugabe instead inspired disdain. The narrative, universally accepted across the country, was that the shy young typist had stolen Mr. Mugabe’s heart and then corrupted him. Mr. Mugabe was a good man turned bad; Ms. Mugabe was the temptress who led him to his downfall.
And in a way, she ultimately did. In the wake of the military takeover of Zimbabwe’s government last week, the announcement that Robert Mugabe is no longer in charge of the country, his subsequent refusal to step down and his ultimate resignation, there is much uncertainty in the country. What is clear is that Grace Mugabe was at the center of the discontent that sparked the surprise coup; the goal, in removing the 93-year-old Mr. Mugabe, was to ensure that she would not ascend to the presidency after his death.
The vitriol against Ms. Mugabe since the coup has been remarkable: Her whereabouts is unknown — a testament to the fact that it is her physical safety rather than his that is in question in these tense times. Some have gone so far as to suggest that her punishment ought to be worse than her husband’s, ignoring the fact that it is Mr. Mugabe who is primarily responsible for the state of the country. There have been calls for her to be expelled from Zimbabwe, even as many people have simply been content to see Mr. Mugabe “retire.”
There is little admirable or democratic about Ms. Mugabe. She is no feminist hero; she has been deeply divisive, and her kleptocracy has been unquestionably bad for the country. And yet the position she finds herself in today speaks to the increasingly complicated role of Africa’s post-independence first ladies.
Over the course of the two decades since she entered public life, Ms. Mugabe garnered a well-deserved reputation for combativeness. She publicly humiliated key leaders; she has been embroiled in a range of personal scandals because of her volatile temper. The first lady of Zimbabwe eventually evolved into a figure who was part mother of the nation, part Kris Jenner: a celebrity “momager” who wore designer outfits while she fed the rural masses and didn’t hesitate to get into physical altercations with those who crossed her or her children.
In contrast to her husband, however, who has been an anachronism for a long time, Ms. Mugabe cut a distinctly modern figure. She was just 31 when she married Mr. Mugabe in 1996; at 52, she remains relatively youthful. While her husband gained his power and credibility from his role in the independence fight, Ms. Mugabe built her own base among a set of politicians in the ruling party, ZANU-PF, who comprised the country’s business elites, most of whom were too young to have participated in independence. (The people who opposed her most fiercely are veterans of the movement.)
As her husband became more fragile, Ms. Mugabe seemed to grow more politically robust. And yet, she was also growing increasingly vulnerable. She was a woman at the center of her country’s politics, one who did not owe her position to having worked her way up through the ranks. (Mr. Mugabe formally declared her head of the women’s wing of ZANU-PF in 2014; before that, she had never held a position in politics.) In recent years, she had alienated powerful figures. Had her husband died in office without securing her position, she would have faced an uncertain future — either in jail or in exile once the inevitable post-Mugabe purge began.
Even without the worst of her behavior — the abuses of power, the extravagance — it is hard to imagine that a figure like Grace Mugabe could have fit comfortably into the role of first lady in a country like Zimbabwe, where the legacy of the independence movement still looms large. Her willingness to berate senior politicians, her ostentatiousness, her lack of reverence for male members of the ruling party — all of it put her outside the bounds of how an African first lady is expected to conduct herself.
The nationalist discourse of many independence movements, which still shapes African politics today, has little room for women. It saw those who took up arms during the fight as radical departures from the norm, who could be accepted only under the special circumstances of guerrilla warfare. After freedom, they were expected to go back to their roles as wives and mothers. First ladies were no exception; they, especially, were expected to embody national unity. Winnie Mandela, who famously refused to play second fiddle to Nelson Mandela, was treated like a pariah during their divorce process in 1996 and vilified afterward; it’s only now that South Africa has begun to reckon publicly with whether it did wrong by her as a country.
If the mantle of first lady never quite suited the unapologetically outspoken Winnie Mandela, it may have sat better on Mr. Mandela’s third wife, Graca Machel, the widow of President Samora Machel of Mozambique. And yet despite her many accomplishments — her role in the liberation of Mozambique, the fact that she served as education minister, her groundbreaking work on advocating for child soldiers — when Ms. Machel and Mr. Mandela announced their plans to wed, she was met with suspicion: “What sort of woman marries not one but two heads of state?” people asked.
Grace Mugabe has fared particularly poorly compared with Sally Mugabe, Robert Mugabe’s first wife, who was the quintessential African first lady. Sally Mugabe was well educated. She had strong independence credentials, having been imprisoned for speaking out against the colonial rule of what was then Southern Rhodesia. And when her husband became prime minister in 1980, she quickly stepped into the maternal role: She was known across the country as Amai, or “mother.”
Grace Mugabe is no Winnie Mandela. She does not begin to approximate the integrity of Graca Machel. Still, it is worth noting the dangers faced by women married to prominent men, in Africa and elsewhere: When they don’t fit a certain mold, they are often vilified — even those who don’t cast nearly as villainous a figure as Grace Mugabe. This week, Mr. Mugabe chose to resign after the country’s parliament began impeachment proceedings — a remarkably gentle procedure to remove a notoriously brutal man. Ms. Mugabe, from her unknown location, awaits news of what party officials have promised will be her prosecution.
Sisonke Msimang is the author, most recently, of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home.