Political dynasties tend to thrive mainly in very large democratic countries where name-recognition is a huge asset: think two President Adams, two President Roosevelts, and maybe soon a third President Bush or a second President Clinton in the United States, or the string of Indian prime ministers from the Nehru-Gandhi clan.
By contrast, such dynasties are rare in Africa—but there’s an exception to every rule.
Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since the end of the white-minority regime in 1980. He’s in pretty good shape for 90 (and his mother lived to 100), but it’s inevitable that the question of the succession will pop up from time to time.
The answer has usually been that it’s a race between two leading figures of the ruling Zanu-PF party: Vice-President Joice Mujuru and Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Mnangagwa was generally reckoned to be Mugabe’s favourite for the role, but Mujuru, who fought in the “Bush War” against the white regime and once shot down a Rhodesian military helicopter with a machine-gun, had more support among the party’s activists. In any case, with the next “election” not due until 2018 and Mugabe showing no signs of imminent mortality, there was no urgency in the situation.
Then in September, Mujuru was awarded a PhD by the University of Zimbabwe for a thesis on “strategic exploratory entrepreneurship”, whatever that may be. (Zimbabwe is a poor and mismanaged country, but it probably has the best-educated population in sub-Saharan Africa, so a higher academic degree is a political asset.)
It’s not clear how much of the work Dr. Mujuru did herself, but her thesis was soon on the shelves of the university library. The remarkable thing is that Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace was awarded a PhD in sociology at the same ceremony, although she had only enrolled at the university three months before. Her thesis has still not shown up in the library.
Since mid-September, however, Zimbabwe has been through a three-month political blitzkrieg that saw Grace Mugabe supplant Mujuru as the heir apparent to the presidency of Zimbabwe.
First she was nominated as the head of the Zanu-PF’s women’s league, despite a complete lack of political experience. Then she embarked on a “meet-the-nation” tour of all 10 of Zimbabwe’s provinces whose main theme was the vilification of Mujuru.
She called the vice-president “corrupt, an extortionist, incompetent, a gossiper, a liar and ungrateful,” adding that she was “power-hungry, daft, foolish, divisive and a disgrace.” She claimed that Mujuru was collaborating with opposition forces and white people to undermine the country's post-independence gains. And finally she accused the independence war hero of plotting to assassinate her husband, President Robert Mugabe.
The pay-off came last week at the Zanu-PF party congress in Harare (take the newly renamed Dr. Grace Mugabe Drive and have the chauffeur drop you at the door). Mujuru was purged from the party, with Robert Mugabe telling the congress: “I don’t know how many books we could write about Mujuru’s crimes.” Grace Mugabe was confirmed as head of the women’s league, and everybody expects that her next stop will be the vice-presidency.
There were a few dissenting voices: Jabulani Sibanda, a veteran of the independence war, told a meeting that this was a “bedroom coup” and argued that “power was not sexually transmitted.”
But he was charged with insulting the president, and most people just kept their heads down. Opposing the Mugabes can be an unhealthy and occasionally even a fatal business.
But what is really going on here? Grace Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s First Lady, is a woman of modest education and coarse manners who met the president when she was manning the switchboard at State House. Forty-one years younger than the president, she began an affair with Robert Mugabe that produced two children even before his wife died. She was known as “First Shopper” because of her extravagance, but she never showed any interest in politics.
That’s why some observers are persuaded that she isn’t really Robert Mugabe’s choice as successor. On the contrary, they argue, he’s just using her to clear Mujuru out of the way so that his real choice, Emmerson Mnangagwa, can become vice-president.
But it seems an unnecessarily round-about way for an autocrat like Mugabe to do business. It also ignores how strong her hold on him is.
At last week’s party congress, Mugabe, frail and sometimes forgetful, took the mike to dissolve the outgoing central committee, and instead wandered off into a lecture about the liberation struggle. Grace wrote him a note telling him to sit down. He did, telling the audience “My wife has written a note; she says I’m talking too much. That’s how I am treated even at home, so I must listen.”
It is entirely possible that Grace’s sudden rise to power is her own idea. If it is, it’s a bad one, because her power would not long outlast Robert Mugabe’s demise.
She has neither political skills nor a base within the party. But she might be doing the country an inadvertent favour even so, if the intra-party struggle to get rid of her after her husband’s death shook Zanu-PF’s long and mostly malign stranglehold on power in Zimbabwe.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.