Grace Mugabe, second wife of Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, has hit the headlines with the revelation that she gained her PhD in sociology from the University of Zimbabwe in less than three months. Since this news broke there have been various calls for Grace to hand back her doctorate.
More so than any other politician, Robert Mugabe, leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union – (Patriotic Front), has come to embody the intransigence and supposed ‘failure’ of post-colonial governance in Africa. At the age of 90 and well into his seventh term as the country’s leader, until recently Mugabe showed few signs of anointing a successor. In recent months, however, Grace has seemed to be positioning herself to continue the political dynasty.
Since their union in 1996, which was described as the ‘marriage of the century’, Grace has attracted considerable attention. Primarily this has been because of her lavish lifestyle and seeming ‘embourgeoisement’. She has earned the nicknames ‘Gucci Grace’ for her love of shopping and ‘Dis-Grace’ due to her involvement in the excavation of diamonds at Chiadzwa mine in eastern Zimbabwe. Commentators have also argued that as Mugabe has aged, Grace has been operating as the ‘power behind the throne’, and that it is Grace who has encouraged the authoritarian nature of ZANU-PF. It’s lazy, but convenient to rest on the ‘Lady Macbeth’ argument when one considers that Mugabe inherited one of the strongest economies in the region in 1980, with the country seemingly going from bread basket to basket case by the early 2000s.
In a race to pass judgement in the PhD saga, both Zimbabwean and international press have breathlessly reported that Grace’s thesis is not available in hard copy at the University of Zimbabwe library or online. The papers are right, the thesis wasn’t on the online repository, but then neither were those of her fellow graduates. Amongst the frenzy, the press has also seemingly neglected to engage their journalistic skills to track down the hard copy. It took just fifteen minutes of ‘digging’ and application of some thought to find it; if the university were attempting to hide something they would do so under a pseudonym, or perhaps even her maiden name, which is what’s been done in this case.
But this isn’t the end of the tale; seemingly the interest generated by the ‘missing’ thesis has resulted in a (potential) academic achievement degenerating into a race to get a bound thesis on the library shelf. More recent pro-Mugabe press reports have stated that there is a ‘sinister agenda’ to the prompt appearance of Vice President Mujuru’s thesis, speculating that its placement on the shelves is some form of underhand scheme to further discredit Grace Mugabe.
This short piece is not concerned with adjudication, but rather seeks to point to some troubling issues regarding the perceived role of black women in the African political landscape. As scholars of nationalism have long observed, nationalist discourses often construct static concepts of ‘womanhood’ in which female passivity is exalted, with women being designated as the nation’s ‘mothers’ not its ideologues. Perhaps Grace’s ‘up-skilling’ also speaks to a broader set of issues regarding political legitimacy, as her main succession ‘rival’, Vice President Joyce Mujuru, is also in possession of a PhD.
Thirdly the case of the phantom PhD (or not) reflects onto the way African women are ‘judged’ by the media. At the recent trial of paralympian athlete Oscar Pistorius, the integrity of high court judge Thokozile Masipa was called into question. Several ‘who is Thokozile Masipa’ profiles appeared in the press, with writers seemingly expressing incredulity that a black African woman would be presiding over the trial. When Masipa found Pistorious not guilty of the murder of his partner Reeva Steenkamp, one commentator argued that she ‘didn’t have the courage to convict the celebrity athlete.’
Public Prosecutor Thuli Madonsela has also been under the spotlight for her involvement in bringing the ‘Nklanda affair’ to light, in which it is alleged that Jacob Zuma has used millions of Rands worth of state funds for home improvements on his homestead in KwaZulu-Natal. As an ordinary member of the African National Congress (ANC), Madonsela has challenged the patriarchal and autocratic nature of the movement, refusing to be bowed by party pressure; for example Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Kebby Maphatsoe, recently accused her of being a CIA agent.
The more pressing issue for the people of Zimbabwe, PhD or not, is that of good governance. The ZANU-PF/MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) coalition has unfortunately brought more of the same for many ordinary Zimbabweans, thus in the case of Zimbabwe the struggle continues!
Kate Law is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Free State, South Africa. You can follow Kate on twitter @drkatelaw.
Helen Garnett is currently a PhD candidate at UFS. Her main research interests include post colonialism and development discourses in Zambia. You can follow her on twitter @fanulas.
Image: Dandjkroberts at Wikimedia Commons.