Zimbabwe: Is Mnangagwa’s wife Auxillia following in ‘Gucci Grace’ Mugabe’s footsteps?

By Farai Shawn Matiashe
Posted on Friday, 1 July 2022 13:06

Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his wife Auxillia look on during his inauguration ceremony in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 26, 2018. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Before staging a military coup that ousted former president Robert Mugabe in November 2017, the military – and Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Lacoste faction of the ruling party – accused Grace Mugabe of taking over some government functions. With just less than five years after becoming Zimbabwe’s first lady, Auxillia appears to be following in Grace’s footsteps.

Charity events heavily funded by the state, control of state media and conferment of an honourary degree are some of the things that Auxillia and Grace appear to have in common.

Analysts and opposition leaders are complaining that Zimbabwe’s first lady is personally benefiting from her position, taking on roles that she should not and using state resources to boost her image in a time of economic crisis.

What role for a first lady?

In late May, Auxillia officially opened the African Elephant Conference, which was held in Hwange, ahead of the 2022 Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.

Even though Auxillia is a patron of environment, climate, tourism and hospitality industry causes, political analysts say that she took over a government function, as the conference was an inter-state meeting attended by ministers from 14 African countries.

“It is not clear the capacity in which she opened the African Elephant Conference in Hwange as she is also the patron of wildlife in Zimbabwe,” Eldred Masunungure, a political analyst based in Harare, tells The Africa Report. “But, as a general rule, government functions must be presided over by government officials. Anything else would be an oddity.”

‘Gucci Grace’

Grace, a shy receptionist who married Mugabe in 1996, was nicknamed ‘Gucci Grace’ for her lavish shopping in places like Singapore, the United Kingdom, and France.

In 2014, she was conferred a controversial doctorate in sociology by the state-run University of Zimbabwe at a time when Jonathan Moyo was a higher education minister.

The conferment was challenged in court after reports emerged that Grace did not defend her thesis and did not spend enough time to complete a doctorate.

Grace started to rise to power that same year by getting herself heavily involved in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front’s (ZANU-PF) politics and state affairs.

She summoned government ministers, attended hearings and influenced her husband to appoint young politicians from her faction, Generation 40.

Grace’s grip

Grace first pushed Mugabe to sack Joice Mujuru and seven cabinet ministers allied with the war veteran in December 2014, before turning to Mnangagwa in a fierce battle that ended in November 2017.

She used ZANU-PF gatherings to rant against her opponents, including generals, accusing them of working hand in hand with Mnangagwa to topple the long-time ruler.

Grace’s story is captured in two books released after the fall of Mugabe: Two Weeks in November by Zimbabwean journalist Douglas Rogers and Graceless Fall of Robert Mugabe: The End of a Dictator’s Reign by journalist Geoffrey Nyarota.

Philanthropist Auxillia

Auxillia, a former spy of the Central Intelligence Organisation and a former member of parliament, married Mnangagwa in 1984.

When her husband grabbed power through a military coup, Auxillia built up her image as a caring and peace-loving mother.

After the November 2017 military coup, she ventured into philanthropic work assisting young girls, orphans and people with disabilities.

She now competes for space with government officials in state-controlled newspaper The Herald and the only state-owned television station, ZTV.

A team of reporters from the state media have even been assigned to cover her charity work, which is in part funded by the state.

The opposition parties allied with leader Nelson Chamisa have taken aim at Auxillia’s charity and other activities that are getting state support. Newspapers have reported that local council have been forced to pay money to help her charity efforts.

Titles and honour

Auxillia Mnangagwa now holds various titles, from ambassador to patron, of some state institutions.

The first lady received a doctor of philosophy (PhD) (honoris causa) degree in May from GD Goenka University in Gurugram Haryana, India in recognition of her philanthropic work.

I also find the conference of degrees interesting. Not unique to her or Grace but quite a trend with African first ladies as a way to legitimise titles.

“I also find the conference of degrees interesting. Not unique to her or Grace but quite a trend with African first ladies as a way to legitimise titles. Also, [it is for] charity work that is heavily government-sponsored,” says Chipo Dendere, a Zimbabwean political analyst based in the United States.

Auxillia often travels around the country with motorcades and blue lights flashing. Sometimes there are road closings and traffic-blocking police motorcycles, a privilege enjoyed by few top government officials.

Asked about the first lady’s role and influence, presidential spokesperson George Charamba did not reply to questions sent to him by the time this article was published.

Where you come from

Bekezela Gumbo, a researcher at the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, says Mnangagwa and his wife are products of the Zimbabwean political system.

“They were creations of Mugabe and they, therefore, replicate what was fed into their mindset by Mugabe,” he tells The Africa Report.

“So, it is not astonishing to foresee that Mrs. Mnangagwa will be worse than Grace because the latter resisted the intoxication of power for 20 years whilst the former got engulfed soon after her husband was handed power by the military.”

Political activities

Masunungure, the political analyst, says Auxillia may need to consider toning down her political involvement to avoid criticism.

“Indications are that she is gradually adding onto her philanthropic portfolio a political-cum-partisan dimension. And it is in the latter domain that she may collide with her husband’s official responsibilities and runs the risk of being accused of usurping presidential functions,” he argues.

“I think she needs to tread carefully lest she will be blamed for all the ills in and of government even when she might not be responsible.”

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