On Grace Mugabe: Coups, phalluses, and what is being defended

Grace Mugabe, left, with her husband, Robert, and their South African counterparts. Image via Government of South Africa Flickr.

Robert Mugabe, a man known for his eloquence, was brought down by a speech. It wasn’t his own. Instead, what did him in was the alarming suspicion that there was a voice which was beginning to speak on his behalf, clamoring to take over his own tremulous one. When his wife, Grace Mugabe, began her “Meet the People Tours” in 2014, rallies held with party loyalists across the country, few anticipated that they would trigger a series of events that would prompt the Zimbabwe Defense Forces to stage a coup, placing the Mugabes under house arrest. A few days later, Grace was expelled from ZANU PF and banned for life, accused of running a “cabal” intent on ruining the country. On November 21st, Mugabe resigned from the presidency after a 37 year rule. 

What, some ask, is the feminist response to this moment of militarism and male ego? For many commentators, Grace seems to be the way in. Up until recently, Grace had both earned and cultivated for herself a reputation as the domesticated mistress, uninterested in politics. She met Mugabe while a secretary in the State House in the late 1980s, and both had conducted an affair while married to other partners. The two finally married in a lavish Catholic ceremony in 1996.  

Given this start, she was remarkably self-conscious about her public image, monitoring press coverage and the public’s perception of her. In 2013, she told the South African media personality Dali Tambo that she had become “a soft target” in the international press after Zimbabwe’s controversial fast track land reform program. Consequently, she dismissed unfavorable stories about her extravagant shopping and temperament as part of a general smear campaign against her husband. During this period, she fashioned herself as a Mother of the Nation, wearing African print outfits adorned with her husband’s face. She grew dreadlocks, increasingly popular among Hararean women of a certain age, and colored them a fashionable but modest amber. 

When she finally made her debut as a political actor in 2014, she proved herself to be a surprisingly effective public speaker. Grace’s late entry into politics was prompted by the intensifying succession battles within ZANU, as members of the party sought to take over Mugabe’s throne. Time was running out; Mugabe was now in his 90s. With his impending death, she needed to secure her vast economic interests. That urgency punctuated her speeches. 

Her speeches revealed a trait that Shona speakers derisively call “kupapauka” or “kuzhandukira,” the crass presumptuousness of the unsophisticated. This quality worked to her advantage on the stage, allowing her to commandeer the bully pulpit. What she lacked in political legitimacy she made up for with her brash presence. She would pace across the stage, leveling attacks against members of the party who displeased her. When she was on a roll, she would stop to laugh — and, there is no other way to say this — wickedly, at her own jokes. Grace’s performances of displeasure often went viral on social media, bits of which Zimbabweans took to mimicking. A finger jab, a scowl, and a now iconic command, “stop it!” directed at alleged saboteurs within ZANU.

I was fascinated by how much evident pleasure she took in her own public anger. Her body, coiled up in rage, always on the verge of violent release, stood in stark contrast to the respectable, disciplined body of the typical female politician. In the middle of her speeches, Grace’s voice would rise like a pastor’s and she would begin to shake her head, almost uncontrollably, in indignance. This was a woman loosed. I imagine that these eruptions of rage were her vengeance on us for having dismissed her all these years, for assuming that she was just an inarticulate secretary turned mistress, for the “Gucci Grace” punchlines. As further retribution, to really “fix” us as we say in Zimbabwe, she received a PhD in Sociology from the University of Zimbabwe in a dubiously record two months. In a final ascension, she became the leader of the powerful ZANU Women’s League in 2014.  

As her profile in ZANU rose, the slogan “munhu wese kunaAmai!” (something like: “Everyone, side with Mother!”) signaled her gradual consolidation of power. Its Oedipal undertones were, of course, gleefully explored by Zimbabweans. This has always been the underlying issue with Grace’s status as a public figure, one that she severely underestimated in her bid for power. First known as Mugabe’s mistress, her authority has always been inextricable from the erotic. Even as she tried to break away from the aging patriarch to whom she had been linked for two decades, Grace was constantly read as wantonly, irredeemably, sexual. 

This is the fate of all political women, and she was no exception. Rumors of her affairs with prominent men were public chatter in Zimbabwe. She had, in the public view, an insatiable sexual appetite, one that prompted many to declare, “Iri ihure chairo!” (this one’s a true slut). Her speeches, paroxysms of anger and laughter of the type considered unbecoming of a respectable woman, only seemed to reinforce her Jezebelian image. In one viral clip, she laughed with impish delight at how easy it was for women to deceive their husbands about the paternity of their children (“You tell him the ear looks just like his!”). This was her way — she touched on, and embodied, primordial patriarchal anxieties with a daring nonchalance.

Grace’s public persona was viewed as especially uncouth in contrast to that of her predecessor, Sally Mugabe, who had been posthumously made into a saint in Zimbabwean public memory. Sally stuck to the public performances expected of a First Lady, establishing women’s co-ops and children’s homes, philanthropic work that was firmly in the realm of the domestic. While Grace allegedly dealt with the problem of being married to a very old man by maintaining a rotating cast of lovers, Sally was said to have, as she died from kidney failure in 1992, selflessly condoned Mugabe’s affair with Grace. Succeeding the Madonna, Grace was cast as the whore. Grace was aware of this binary, and consistently complained about the unfairness of the Sally comparisons. Exasperated, she declared during one speech, “I’m not Mugabe’s whore!”  

To free herself from playing a part in a sexist drama, she latched onto a virulent misogyny. The women who might have been her allies became her targets. In 2015, she told Zimbabwean women, “If you walk around wearing mini-skirts displaying your thighs and inviting men to drool over you, then you want to complain when you have been raped? That is unfortunate because it will be your fault.”

If we are to understand Grace the orator, perhaps we might return to ancient Greece for a bit. In the Greek rhetorical tradition, the harlot was a symbol of the kind of seductive speech that tempts listeners away from reason, speech that is all ornament and no substance. Such speech, which could induce irrationality in men, was considered a danger to the civic good. Consequently, many teachers of rhetoric trained their students to rid their speech of all unnecessary flair. Democracy depended upon taming the tongue. 

In the past few years, Grace, already branded a harlot, was considered a threat to the nation-state on the basis that she was improperly influencing Mugabe, weaponizing their pillow talk to sway a senile old man. Her speeches, nakedly ambitious, only seemed to confirm that it was she who was in power in Harare. The phallus had been deposed. That she took a special pleasure in humiliating the powerful men in ZANU only intensified the castration anxiety. It was among her favorite queenly rituals, as she summoned them up to the podium in the middle of her speeches to berate them for countless infractions, chief among them disloyalty to her and her husband.  

Up there on the stage, she morphed into another archetype, The Mother Who Punishes. Grace instinctively grasped the immense power of this role, but she did not appreciate that such matriarchs are subsequently blamed for the sins of men — accused of driving husbands and sons to murder. This narrative, ahistorical and reactionary, was attached to her with ease. Sally, selfless until death, had brought out the best in Mugabe, but he had grown more ruthless and despotic since marrying Grace. The suffering of millions of Zimbabweans was laid at her feet.

After the expulsion of Vice President Emmerson Mnagagwa from ZANU in early November of 2017, which she orchestrated, it was clear that Grace meant to succeed her husband as president. In recent months, I noticed that she had moved away from her Mother of the Nation look, preferring an aesthetic I called “The Real Housewife of Zvimba” (Zvimba is where Robert Mugabe’s ancestral village is located). She had shorn her earthy, relatable, dreadlocks, and was wearing pin-straight, jet-black hair extensions. When she wasn’t clothed in the requisite party regalia for official business, she dressed in gaudy designer outfits of satin, brocade, and tweed, stilettos on her feet. A mode of power-dressing fit for what the Nigerian feminist theorist Amina Mama might term the femocrat. It seemed that she had given up on trying to convince Zimbabweans, who never liked her anyway, that she was a nurturant mother. Now that she had a taste of real power, there was no need to sartorially disguise her ambition.

Therein lies the problem. In the eyes of the ZANU old guard, her performances too eagerly displayed her newfound power, her ability to exact revenge at will. That, as they demonstrated with an unprecedented military intervention into civilian affairs, was their role. The phallocracy had to be defended from the loose woman with the loose tongue.

In her public life as an orator, Grace courted and even mocked the backlash against her. I’m just not sure that she expected it to be such a swift excision. But this is an ancient tale. As thousands took to the streets to celebrate Mugabe’s resignation on November 21, some members of the triumphant crowd chanted, “We won’t be ruled by a whore!” On this point, many Zimbabweans were in agreement with the military and the old men of ZANU. While she is not worthy of defense, certainly not from this feminist, the expulsion of Grace is a sign of what lies beneath this “new era.” We see it in the emergent cult of personality, the promises to stamp out “social and cultural decadency,” the all-male photo-ops and silent, decorative women. What is old is new again. While men continue to share the spoils of their misrule, it seems there must always be a harlot who can be brought to heel.

Rudo Mudiwa

Rudo Mudiwa is a PhD candidate in Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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