Our growing infatuation with first ladies

Guest column: Miriam Tose Majome

WHAT is fuelling our growing infatuation with the wives of our political leaders and men in power? It could be the unavoidable strong influence of American politics or possibly a secret ploy by the United Nations to dumb us all down. Wives of princes and presidents make headlines all the time about absolutely nothing, and they even draw more attention than their husbands.

We barely know a thing about Angela Merkel or Theresa May’s husbands, but we know all there is to know about Melania Trump, Michelle Obama and Brigitte Macron. In the 1980s, the late Princess Diana made it seem as if it was Prince Charles who had married into the royal family. Previously, in Zimbabwe we had no such interest in the lives of our leaders’ spouses. They were just privileged women, who smiled a lot for the cameras and wore nice pearls and clothes. We didn’t even care to know anything about Janet Banana, our very first First Lady in independent Zimbabwe from 1980-1987. Then enter Robert Mugabe as President in 1987 with his two headline-grabbing wives, and Zimbabwe was never the same again. Grace was on fire, but Sally was not exactly a wall flower. Both were remarkable First Ladies in their totally different ways. Today, Sally lies interred at the Heroes Acre, while Grace is alive and well somewhere, but never to be forgotten in the Zimbabwean memory hall of fame and infamy. Much more of Grace later….

Not much is known about the country’s first First Lady, 83 year-old Janet Banana, because she lived a fiercely private life. She was the First Lady for seven years from 1980 to 1987, when her husband Canaan Banana was the country’s President. She was a very humble obscure woman and a mother of four, who avoided publicity and the scandals which later became a way of life for all her successors.

We had rare glimpses of Janet every now and then at State functions and in a few photographs. She was always in the background, a simple dignified woman smiling behind her husband. So humble was she that she was frequently spotted on the Harare to Bulawayo train, travelling just like any other ordinary person – something that cannot be fathomed today. She had none of the airs and graces that might be associated with the status of the country’s first African First Lady. She endured and suffered the shame and pain of her husband’s homosexual indiscretions with his bodyguards and his football team players. She suffered through the shame of knowing that it was her husband at who President Mugabe directed his widely famous catatonic angry homophobic outbursts about homosexuals being worse than pigs and dogs. She endured and suffered silently her husband’s brushes with the law for sodomy charges and the lengthy and very intrusive trial that ensued. She moved to the United Kingdom and lived there for a long time after her husband’s trial, imprisonment and eventual death. She is now back in the country and is living in Bulawayo, far from the limelight she has always evaded.

As for Sally Mugabe, a lot more is known about her because she was a very public person. She was a politician, a philanthropist, and politically astute in her own right. She had a long career in party politics and was elected secretary-general of Zanu PF women’s league in 1989. Her political career dates back to the 1950’s in her homeland Ghana, when she met Mugabe, a school teacher, and married him in 1961. She made many personal sacrifices for him, including leaving her home to come to a then very difficult racially segregated country.

One of her biggest personal sacrifices was burying their only child, Nhamodzenyika alone, while her husband served 11 years for his political crimes. She supported and encouraged him in prison to pursue some of his famous seven degrees. For the love of her charming man with a quaint British-like English tone, she transcribed by her own hand long passages from textbooks which were not allowed in prison and she was by his side throughout his entire danger-filled political career.

After independence, she was known for her Ghanaian accent and unique African prints fashion and a distinct headdress fashion that no one has ever been able to match to date.

She was to endure more pain and heartbreak in her personal life as she watched the husband who she had dearly loved, loyally served and waited for while he was in prison make off with his insanely gorgeous young secretary called Grace Marufu. Grace and Mugabe went on to have two children out of wedlock in their adulterous relationship as Sally bravely fought a debilitating and kidney ailment that finally took her life in early 1992. They married after her death and had another child.

Sally was the first woman to be buried at the Heroes Acre and her funeral was one of the most attended. She was given a fitting heroine’s send off. Sally, the woman who made Mugabe the man he was, took with her to the grave whatever it was that she had given him. After Sally, Mugabe was never the same again until his graceless exit from power in 2017.

Fast forward to almost three decades later after Sally, the appetite of the star gazing wives of male politicians has reached fever pitch. So desperate are people that from time to time, someone tries to sniff out and drag into the limelight the camera shy and retreating wife of opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa. So little is known of her except her name Thoko and that she is a lawyer. She gives out so little material to work with that it frustrates some people that they resort to making things up.

Now, all eyes are on Auxillia Mnangangwa. There is no denying that our current First Lady has a penchant for TV cameras. When she stops to buy tomatoes on her way home, ZBC makes sure to put it on the news headlines so that we know she was cooking Mnangagwa a beef stew for supper. Since Grace you can no longer tell who courts who, but it is a little game we all like to play now with our First Ladies. We pretend we don’t want to hear about them, but we prick our ears up whenever we hear them mentioned on the news and always tune in to ZBC TV keep up with their latest antics. We love watching them just so we can hate them.

ZBC’s highest ever viewer ratings were in 2014 and 2017 when “Cyclone” Grace went around the country wreaking havoc and leaving a hitherto unknown trail of political carnage. Live on ZBC TV, she scornfully chided whichever politician she did not like right on stage, while receiving sickening phony flowery accolades from male politicians trying to keep their jobs kneeling and grovelling at her feet like stupid little boys. No one who watched it can forget the way the former Zanu PF Mashonaland East chairman Ray Kaukonde was belittled on stage in Marondera. However, the most special one was the final and deadly Mazowe crushing of former Vice-President Joice Mujuru. Grace skilfully and almost single-handedly publicly engineered the end of Joice’s illustrious political career with a simple microphone and well-placed scornful sneers every time she mentioned the name “Mai Mujuru” and that was enough as we all watched it live on ZBC TV, wide-eyed and agape. With Joice gone, she moved very quickly tigress-like, going in for the big kill as she moved from explosive rallies in Chiweshe to Bulawayo, until she finally deftly toppled the great ED from his VP perch with her perfect choreographed stage work. No one will ever forget her “Iwe George!” as she summoned the Information permanent secretary (George Charamba), after which Charamba came scampering onto the stage to receive his dose of public humiliation, as her nonagenarian husband snoozed blissfully on stage by her side. Charamba is a strong man if ever there was one, because no human being can take that kind of word and remain compos mentis afterwards.

Grace was something else and we will never see her kind again in this country. Auxilia has nothing of Grace, try as she might to love the limelight. She may chide a few nurses at government hospitals on ZBC TV now and then and dressdown a few bosses at the government pharmaceutical company, but she just doesn’t have that Grace factor. Grace is truly special. She belongs to that very high elite group of First Ladies who helped expedite the demise of their husbands’ political careers. Grace is in the same group with female icons like Eva Peron of Argentina, Marie Antoinette who is credited with expediting the French Revolution and Jian Qui (Madame Mao), Chinese President’s Mao’s pathologically corrupt wife. Auxillia will never get into Grace’s league, but she has her uses. She is a useful scapegoat for people who are angry and annoyed with her husband’s less than satisfactory handling of the economy. Through her various TV exploits, she is serving to push an important public debate about the role of a First Lady in the governance of our country.

 Miriam Tose Majome is a legal officer for Veritas Zimbabwe and she writes in her personal capacity. She can be contacted on mtmajome@gmail.com and Twitter @MajomeMiriam

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1 Comment

  1. Even the term First Lady is just a socially accepted moniker there is no recognition of it in the Constitution Janet Banana knew that never bothered thats why she is adored. Sally Mugabe utilised the term but mainly for philanthropic causes. But Grace (a political imbecile) abused the term for political scores and business ventures. Auxilia is no different from Grace only she hasn’t started abusing the status to destroy political opponents – she will soon – Mary Chiwenga already calls herself the second first lady.

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