WE have seen First Ladies before, but Auxillia Mnangagwa beats them all in terms of wanting publicity and use of borrowed power. Janet Banana, Sally Mugabe or Grace Mugabe all fall behind by a wide margin. What does this mean for our constitutional democracy?
In 2022 alone, Auxillia has been to India and Russia all by herself making the headlines. She even got her first honorary degree from Zimbabwe Open University. What a mark in a country that is obsessed with titles, she is now official Doctor Auxillia and the State-owned media has been practicing writing her as such.
It is important to highlight what Zimbabwe’s first three First Ladies did in their time. Janet, who ironically shared the same name with the wife of the late Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Douglas Smith — the last white racist leader before independence in 1980 — was a woman who did her work quietly. She knew her position, supporting her husband.
As for Janet, I know it is easy to say her husband was a mere ceremonial leader, but constitutionally speaking Canaan Banana was the Head of State. Probably, it came with experience and lived reality as a wife of an ordained church minister. She understood that the office of the President was her husband’s and not hers.
Sally came next. She was from Ghana. She was a teacher by profession. Politically erudite and had a good heart. She was a philanthropist and set up many organisations to assist underprivileged children and women. Sally knew her place well and was always in the shadows at regional and international summits where she accompanied her husband Robert Mugabe.
Close to the turn of the century, Mugabe remarried after Sally’s passing away. He got married to Grace. Grace was a former secretary in the Office of the President and Cabinet. Actually, she worked in the typing pool. She did well to remain in the background during her early years. Grace was known for her expensive fashion tastes, earning herself the moniker Gucci Grace.
In her last five years as First Lady, Grace became more political, but this was limited to Zanu PF functions and never State functions. She tried to influence the Zanu PF succession debate. However, that is where her influence ended. Granted, her last public speeches at Zanu PF meetings make people cringe, but that was nowhere near dabbling in State issues.
Fast forward to 2018, Auxillia enters the stage. She has a background in the security services. She was an active politician and succeeded her husband Emmerson Mnangagwa as Chirumanzi-Zibagwe constituency Member of Parliament. She knew power and was now set to flaunt it. Is it not a common phrase that — if you have it, flaunt it? Auxillia learnt well on this.
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Zimbabwe now practically — please note, not legally — has the Office of the First Lady. Auxillia has directors in her office, a media team and to cap it all travels in a convoy with blue lights. This is a first in Zimbabwe and will become permanent if her husband wins re-election in 2023.
The worrying thing is the new development where she is making State-visits. Auxillia is now being treated like an elected official. She is now speaking on behalf of the government when in reality she is not a government official and is not answerable to anyone.
On December 4, The Sunday Mail ran a screaming headline — First Lady engages senior Russian government official on agriculture, education and technology. This is a domain reserved for elected or appointed government officials who are answerable to both Cabinet and Parliament. I’m baffled. Where were the ministers of Agriculture, Education and Technology?
The Sunday Mail cements her position saying: “A hands-on person, the First Lady said her office was willing to coordinate most activities working with women to ensure success.” (https://www.sundaymail.co.zw/first-lady-engages-senior-russian-govt-officials-on-agric-education-and-technology).
This may seem trivial, but the reality is this is unconstitutional. How does an unelected or appointed person lead negotiations with a foreign power? She is not accountable to anyone, I mean really no-one.
Auxillia is now Her Majesty Empress — answerable to no-one but signing agreements that bind all. In a constitutional democracy, that is unheard of. I’m shocked why parliamentarians never asked this during Wednesday’s question-and -answer session. Is it because they are busy enjoying the US$40 000 golden handshakes extended to them?
President Emmerson Mnangagwa should explain to the country or regularise this behaviour through making a constitutional appointment. Nothing stops Mnangagwa from appointing his wife a minister, even without a portfolio into his Cabinet. The late Nelson Mandela did it in South Africa by appointing Winnie as a minister. In the United States, Donald Trump was clever to regularise the activities of his daughter and son-in-law (Ivanka and Jared Kushner) as his advisors.
It is now urgent that Zimbabwe should discuss and set the parameters of the so-called Office of the First Lady. Leaving it a grey area is dangerous, all power should be used transparently and be held accountable.
About the First Lady, brittanica.com says: “Wife of the President of the US. Although the First Lady’s role has never been codified or officially defined, she figures prominently in the political and social life of the US because she is representative of her husband on official and ceremonial occasions both at home and abroad, the First Lady is closely watched for some hint of her husband’s thinking and for a clue to his future actions.”
What remains clear in the United States where the term originated is: First Lady is a representative of her husband on official and ceremonial functions at home and abroad. This means all her actions and omissions are pinned on the husband.
Even if Mnangagwa would want to be imperial president, Auxillia, like the late Prince Philip, should know she is just a representative and has no distinct office and her power is limited to the delegated authority.