from Africa in Transition

Two Wives, One Robert Mugabe

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe outside the capital, Harare, Zimbabwe, April 7, 1995. This photo was taken shortly before his marriage to his second wife, Grace, in 1996, and after the death of his first, Sally, in 1992. Patrick De Noirmont/Reuters

November 28, 2017

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe outside the capital, Harare, Zimbabwe, April 7, 1995. This photo was taken shortly before his marriage to his second wife, Grace, in 1996, and after the death of his first, Sally, in 1992. Patrick De Noirmont/Reuters
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Zimbabwe

Robert Mugabe

Sub-Saharan Africa

Women and Women's Rights

It is in the interest of the ZANU-PF regime, now headed by former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, that blame for Zimbabwe’s ills be shifted from deposed president Robert Mugabe to his wife, Grace. Mugabe is a liberation icon, popular all over Africa, and his ZANU-PF regime still rules Zimbabwe. Therefore, Mnangagwa’s regime will endeavor to keep Mugabe on his pedestal, not least because of his residual icon status with other African leaders. Further, the military is representing its coup as an “intervention,” not against the president, but rather against the “criminals” that surrounded him. This is a scenario of ‘Don’t blame the king, instead blame the “evil counselors,”’ of which the most important was his wife, Grace. The impeachment charges that drove Mugabe to resign included that he had failed to keep Grace and her associates under control, not that he himself had engaged in criminal behavior.

In Zimbabwe, the “wicked Grace” narrative is balanced by the “Amai” (mother) narrative of Sally, Mugabe’s first wife. She was known for her charitable work, and was as popular as Grace was unpopular on the street. According to this narrative, it was after Sally died, to be succeeded by Grace, that Mugabe went off the tracks. So, the grotesqueries of Mugabe, especially his last years, were the fault of a woman—not of himself. It is a variation of the “Adam and Eve” narrative. The snake persuaded Eve to eat the forbidden apple, and Eve convinced Adam. So, to blame for the 'Fall' are a woman and a snake—not Adam.

In fact, the tyranny of Mugabe was the result of his own political skill and ruthlessness, and his tight alliance with the military and veterans of the liberation struggle, or the Second Chimurenga. Neither Sally nor Grace played much of a role in his mismanagement of the country. After 2014, however, Grace began angling to succeed her husband as president. It is when the military and the war veterans became convinced that she might succeed that they moved against Mugabe. She nominally precipitated the coup, but its root cause was Mugabe’s insistence on maintaining control even as he visibly declined with age. Grace, however, was known for her shopping, not her politics. Rather than overwhelming presidential ambition, it is more likely that she was her husbands pawn to maintain his power as his health progressively declined. He was pulling the strings, not her.
 

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