Grace Mugabe Launches Charm Offensive

Campaign apparently aimed to make people forget the violence that rocked the country in the three months after the March elections.

Grace Mugabe Launches Charm Offensive

Campaign apparently aimed to make people forget the violence that rocked the country in the three months after the March elections.

Zimbabwe’s First Lady, Grace Mugabe, has gone on a public relations blitz in what analysts say is an attempt to give a human face to State House.

The state-owned media have likened her to an Old Testament heroine. “Like the Biblical Deborah,” read an article in the government mouthpiece, The Herald, “who led the Israelites when confusion reigned supreme among the children of God, Amai Mugabe rose as a mother of the nation.”

“Amai” is Shona for mother; prefixed to a name it bestows dignity and matriarchal wisdom.

“In a nation that had to contend with a resurgence of political violence following the harmonised elections,” the article continued, “Amai Mugabe toured homesteads of victims of the barbarism and helped them begin to reconstruct their lives, literally from the ashes. And while taking the opportunity to help the victims, Amai Mugabe became one of the first national political leaders to condemn violence after the elections.”

Articles in the state-owned media distance the First Lady from the violence that ensued when her husband lost the March 29 presidential election to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. By association, they also exonerate President Robert Mugabe.

A veteran journalist working in the state media told IWPR that reporters and feature writers have been instructed to write glowingly about the First Couple in an attempt to airbrush their image in the face of an uncertain future.

“I think the whole thinking is that whatever the result of the negotiations in Pretoria, the two should be seen by the general populace in good light,” he said, referring to the inter-party talks mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki to end Zimbabwe’s political crisis. It is becoming increasingly clear that the talks are expected to deprive Mugabe of most of his powers and signal the twilight of his political career.

In the aftermath of the June 27 presidential run-off, which became a one-man race after Tsvangirai pulled out, citing violence against his people, Grace Mugabe went on a whirlwind tour of the country’s rural areas, distributing food, blankets, shoes and agricultural equipment. She addressed rallies in which she denounced political violence, which she attributed to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, even though reports by foreign diplomats and human rights organisations blamed the ruling ZANU-PF .

On the post-June 27 tours, the First Lady’s tone was in direct contrast to her speeches prior to both the March 29 elections and the June run-off, when she preached hatred against Tsvangirai.

The veteran journalist said the aim of the new campaign was to make people forget the violence that rocked the country in the three months after the March ballot and instead see the First Couple’s benevolence.

“But I don’t think people forget that easily,” he said. He pointed out that more than two decades have passed since the Gukurahundi massacres, when government troops murdered up to 20,000 people in a bid to destroy ZAPU, the rival liberation group-turned-political-party. And up to today, the people of Matabeleland and the Midlands, most of them Ndebele, who bore the brunt of the violence, have not forgiven Mugabe.

For the most part, the Ndebele people have voted consistently against him. The climax of Grace Mugabe’s public relations campaign came on her 43rd birthday on July 23 when she unveiled an orphanage in Mazowe, just 30 kilometres north of the capital Harare. The orphanage boasts 30 houses nearing completion. She is also the patron of Danhiko Trust, a school for people with disabilities.

Newsnet, the news wing of the government-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, reported, “The First Lady, Amai Grace Mugabe, turns 43 today with a determined effort to see the improvement of lives among disadvantaged children in Zimbabwe. The plight of disadvantaged children including HIV and AIDS orphans and children with disabilities has been a major priority in her charity work. The First Lady’s patronage of Danhiko project, which is a school for people with disabilities, and her grand plan to establish an orphanage in Mazowe bear testimony to her commitment to disadvantaged communities.”

Running parallel to Grace Mugabe’s campaign is that of her husband’s, casting him as the true revolutionary who has brought 100 per cent economic empowerment and total independence to his people. Spearheaded by Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, the Basic Commodities Supply Side Intervention, or Bacossi, campaign has seen Mugabe commissioning People’s Shops, where basic food commodities are sold for a song.

Bacossi has made it possible for millions of people in disadvantaged communities to buy food which they would otherwise not be able to afford. Apparently the facility is open to all people regardless of their political affiliations. Mugabe has been known in the past to use food as a political weapon.

A history professor at the University of Zimbabwe, who preferred not to be named, said the Bacossi campaign was aimed at casting Mugabe as the “benevolent despot”.

The idea, he said, is that “at the end people will say, ‘although he has killed people and maimed thousands, he has given us land, and agricultural implements and has economically empowered us’, and they will be ready to forgive him”.

But he too doubted if the strategy would work, “In history, benevolent despots only remained in power as long as the people allowed them to; if the people had a change of mind then the despots were deposed quickly. For almost ten years Mugabe has been fighting the will of the people by stealing elections.”

He said the openly populist moves Mugabe has made in the past ten years – such as the land reform programme and now Bacossi – were meant to disguise his desperation to stay in power. Now that the game is about up, he has to be portrayed as the man who remained steadfast in defending his country and empowering his people.

“But if Mugabe has improved the lives of the people it was only to strengthen his own authority,” he said.

While the international and local privately owned media accuse the First Lady of spending taxpayers’ money on shopping jaunts abroad, and Mugabe himself of an insatiable thirst for power, the First Couple has still managed to donate substantial sums of money to community projects in a bid to win the hearts of especially rural communities.

However, analysts remain sceptical that they will be able to win over the urban population, who have supported the MDC since its emergence in 2000.

Robert Mugabe married his private secretary, Grace Marufu, in 1994 under controversial circumstances; at least one of their three children was born when Mugabe was still married to his first wife, the Ghanaian Sally Heyfron, who at the time was battling a kidney ailment that eventually killed her.

While the union was kept secret, two Zimbabwean journalists who published the story in the independent Financial Gazette – Trevor Ncube and Simba Makunke – were harassed by state agents and eventually forced to quit their jobs. Ncube is now the publisher of the respected independent newspapers, the Zimbabwe Independent and Standard, and of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa.

Benedict Unendoro is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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