Opinion by Pedzisai Ruhanya
From Marie Antoinette, Emilda Marcos, Elanor Roosevelt, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to Sally Mugabe, spouses of political leaders have played significant roles in shaping political processes and power retention schemes of their partners.
With two weeks to go before Zimbabwe holds its post-transitional election, it is important to interrogate the roles the First Lady Grace Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s wife Elizabeth are playing as they attempt to convince the electorate to vote for their husbands.
This is critical because history has taught us that spouses of political players are potential sources of stability and instability to the political aspirations of their husbands.
They can be stabilising or destabilising forces on the electoral campaigns.
They can be sources of wise counsel to their husbands, but they can equally be destructive.
There are interesting contrasts between Grace and Elizabeth this far. Grace kick-started the public campaigns when she addressed a Zanu PF rally at Nzvimbo growth point in Mashonaland East Province.
She took to the stage and launched vitriol attacks against Tsvangirai, describing him using all sorts of abusive words. Grace did not appreciate the Zanu PF election manifesto in order to convince people why President Robert Mugabe should retain the presidency.
Instead, Grace told her supporters and thousands of Zimbabweans who watched news on Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation Television (ZBC-TV) how ugly Tsvangirai was.
She went on to openly declare that there was no vacancy at State House yet there is an election to precisely fill that vacancy in terms of the legal and constitutional requirements.
The message that Grace sent was that of arrogance and disrespect of the electorate and the electoral processes. She was telling Zimbabweans that their votes do not matter because Mugabe will remain president irrespective of the legitimate and democratic will of the people.
Most critically, the arrogance, the lack of love, the hate language was very spiteful to the voters. She did not plead for the people’s votes. In this case, the millions who watched her public display of arrogance could hardly be forced to support her husband.
In contradistinction to Grace, Elizabeth made a passionate plea for peace, tolerance and the avoidance of hate speech by political leaders especially those representing the MDC-T when she addressed thousands of supporters over the weekend in Sakubva and Mucheke stadiums in Mutare and Masvingo respectively.
On Saturday, Elizabeth took to the stage in Sakubva stadium and told the MDC-T leadership to address issues to do with maternal mortality arguing that it was disheartening to experience the death of women during child bearing.
She said that families who have suffered such loses expect the leadership to provide solutions to serious health problems especially in rural areas.
The crowd responded by a huge applause indicating that she was addressing real issues to do with common everyday problems.
Elizabeth also talked about how families have been destroyed because of lack of jobs and how women are stressed up because of failing to feed their families and the agonies they have of looking after unemployed husbands and graduate children.
She challenged Tsvangirai and his leadership to desist from hate speech and attacking political opponents and come up with solid programmes to address rampant poverty in the country.
The third issue she addressed was the issue of mandatory free primary education for all children.
She argued that while the state would assist parents by funding primary education, parents should then mobilise their resources in preparation for secondary and tertiary education.
The suggestion and the solution received huge applauses during the two rallies she addressed.
At Mucheke , Elizabeth summed up her message by urging people not to give up their quest for freedom by citing the story of Moses when he led the children of Israel to the Promised Land. He urged the supporters to continue to invest in hope and change. She pleaded with them to remain focused on victory by voting in their thousands on July 31. The Biblical reference received a huge applause from the supporters.
What is clear from the campaigns of these two ladies is that Grace is hurting Mugabe’s campaign through arrogance and failure to address real issues that resonate with public expectations while Elizabeth has been humbly pleading for votes by articulating how citizens would benefit if her husband is elected president on July 31.
It is also becoming clear that Elizabeth appreciates some policies of the MDC-T which are social democratic and seek to address the daily problems of workers, the poor and students such as the need to revive the economy, job creation and rural transformation.
In contrast, so far Grace thinks that Mugabe is a monarch who who is there to stay at State House. She also exhibits lack of understanding of the core issues in the Zanu PF manifesto.
She resorts to a mudslinging game in front of an electorate that wants solutions to move the country forward and not a slide back to years of political and economic decay that marked Zimbabwe before the formation of the inclusive government in 2009.
Going by the public outrage at the hollow elections campaigns that are marked by threats and hate speech, it is possible to suggest Grace could be hurting Mugabe’s campaign while Tsvangirai could benefit hugely from the clear articulation of election issues by Elizabeth provided she remains consistent.
The subject of morality that Grace dealt with was not strategic because she is not a saint either. The point to observe from this is that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. My hope is that her advisors drew some hard lessons from her misguided political outbursts that exhibited thorough emptiness.
Unlike Grace, the late Amai Sally Mugabe was a mature and compassionate woman. She was not involved in building mansions in a country engulfed by poverty. Sally was not involved in extravagant shopping sprees in foreign capitals unlike Grace who is notorious for that.
In short, Sally brought political capital to Mugabe. She was a source of fortunes and not misfortunes to the First Family.
There is a general belief among Zimbabweans that the death of Sally marked the beginning of the president’s political misfortunes as evidenced by the massive civil servants strike in August 1996.
The strike came after Mugabe’s lavish wedding to Grace at Kutama Mission the same year. The riled public servants were protesting against poor conditions of service and extravagant spending associated with the government.
There are other cases worldwide where first ladies were the source of political misfortunes for their husbands that Mugabe and Tsvangirai’s spouses should learn from, especially during political campaigns
It should be remembered that former South African president Nelson Mandela divorced Winnie Madikizela-Mandela when he realised that she was a source of political instability because of her scandals that had a potential to destroy Mandela’s political brand despite that she was an asset before that.
During the French Revolution in 1789, history students appreciate the political disaster in Marie Antoinette, the wife of French King Louis XVI when she allegedly said peasants should eat cakes at a time the country was hit by bread shortages.
Imelda Marcos, the wife of the late Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos was known for her corrupt activities and her unquenchable thirst for expensive fashion designs.
The late Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s wife was also known for her shopping escapades in Europe while the country was engulfed in poverty and civil strife.
Other first ladies in the mould of Sally who were sources of stability and who contributed to humanity and world peace were the late United States first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a humanitarian, a pioneer of modern-day human rights and played a leading role in the formation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
As the country proceeds with the electoral and political campaigns, advisors of the two ladies should find time to counsel them with a view to making sure that they are not liabilities to the two political gladiators, Mugabe and Tsvangirai.
The same goes for the two gentlemen — they should address the economic and political issues facing the country and not dwell on sloganeering and hate speech.
Pedzisai Ruhanya is director of Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.