Orwell’s Animal Farm provides the perfidious template for today’s Zimbabwe, with its manipulations, betrayals, doublespeak, and pretensions of grandeur. As President Robert G. Mugabe, the country’s 90-year old autocrat, continues to pretend to govern, so his much younger second wife has usurped her elders and gained political position and public notoriety, presumably with the president’s approval.
Grace Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s first lady, is widely known among the upper echelons of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Front – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), as “grasping Grace.” When President Mugabe’s Ghanaian first wife was dying, having left her husband childless, Grace worked in the presidential typing pool and was chosen to become President Mugabe’s mistress, bear three children, and later become his wife.
Now 49, Grace Mugabe was a woman with little education, especially by Zimbabwean standards of secondary and university excellence. But she prospered in the 1990s as first lady and, much more recently, partnered with the then governor of the nation’s Central Bank to acquire a major holding on the alluvial diamond mines in the eastern section of Zimbabwe. These holdings in Marange have proved extremely profitable for her. Adjoining properties have made military commanders, the former minister of defence and now minister of justice, the former minister of mines, and many well-connected persons enormously wealthy. But not the state, which has received precious few royalties or taxes from Marange.
Zimbabwe has now run out of cash. Unless China decides to inject new financial resources into Zimbabwe in exchange for control over rich ferrochrome and platinum mines – unless President Mugabe sells the country to China – it is hard to know how Zimbabwe will be able to pay its bills or its civil servants and soldiers. President Mugabe’s threats against foreign-owned business and the few remaining white-owned farms have frozen foreign investment and domestic re-investment. Capital flight has been massive. Banks and businesses have failed and commercial liquidity is nil. One telling indication of the depths of Zimbabwe’s deflation is that beer sales, year on year, are down 29 percent. Overall, Zimbabwe’s economy this year is regressing at minus 2 percent.
It is in this atmosphere of decay that Grace Mugabe has launched herself into the potential battle for national leadership after her husband dies or becomes too incapacitated to continue. (He is alleged to suffer from prostate cancer.) She pushed aside the chairman of the ZANU-PF Women’s League so that she could gain a serious position in the party and a place in its politburo. She has publicly attacked Joice Mujuru, the sitting first vice-president – the “vultures” are coming to get you, she said — and presumably intends to succeed her when the ZANU-PF party holds its national congress in December.
In order to buttress her successional credentials, she (or her husband) somehow managed in September to persuade the University of Zimbabwe to grant her a doctoral degree for a thesis on children’s homes in Zimbabwe. But no lecturer at the University admits to having seen the thesis, or examined it. Moreover, although President Mugabe has many well-earned correspondence degrees and an early bachelor’s degree from Fort Hare College in South Africa, Grace Mugabe in 1998-99 squeezed only one pass (out of seven papers) while trying to take a correspondence course in English literature from the University of London.
In recent weeks Grace Mugabe has held rallies all around Zimbabwe, supposedly thanking the party faithful for “nominating” her to the women’s league position. She has used the presidential helicopter to make her forays. The country’s state-controlled media has covered all her long speeches, carrying front-page stories and lots of photos. Buses now carry three-foot posters of her, looking formidable.
The real battle for succession was expected to be between Mujuru, widow of a war hero, and Emmerson Mnangagwa, minister of justice and a long close confidant of President Mugabe. But now Grace Mugabe wants in, presumably to protect her children and her riches. If the ruling party constitution is changed to give President Mugabe authority to appoint vice-presidents, his first lady could well become the heir apparent. Ambition would trump ability. Orwell’s words and warnings live.
But, whenever President Mugabe exits, that might only mean a fierce conflict between Manangagwa and his military supporters and the first lady and whoever she persuades to join her camp. Meanwhile, ordinary Zimbabweans suffer, the World Food Programme feeds 10 percent of the people (otherwise they would go hungry), and Zimbabwe continues under the Mugabe regime to slide inexorably backwards.
Zimbabwe, once wealthy and well-educated, now has one of the lowest GDPs per capita in Africa, among the very lowest life-expectancies in the world, deteriorated educational systems, and a plethora of despair. It could get much worse.