Zimbabwe’s first lady eyes up the presidency
Grace Mugabe has come a long way from presidential secretary to Zimbabwe’s first lady. Now there is talk of her becoming the country’s leader. But are political dynasties a good idea?
The talk in Zimbabwe in recent weeks has focused on one subject, or rather, one woman. The ruling party, Zanu-PF, headed by President Robert Mugabe, has been preoccupied with an internal power struggle for some time. The question on everyone's lips is who will succeed the ageing leader, and there is feverish speculation that the president’s wife, Grace Mugabe, could be about to enter the battle.
Robert Mugabe turns 91 in February and has been in power for 34 years. He insists that he is not about to give up office, but the debate is heating up as Zanu-PF prepares for a congress this month that happens just once every five years. The rise of his 49-year-old second wife, nicknamed ‘Gucci Grace’ for her love of extravagant shopping trips, suggests that Mugabe wants to keep the presidency in the family.
Grace Mugabe entered politics in August when she was nominated to head Zanu-PF’s women’s league – a position that should be confirmed at the December congress. This will give her a seat in the party’s politburo.
But there are mixed feelings about Grace Mugabe. Some call her ‘DisGrace’, for her acerbic attacks on critics, which some have branded ‘un-African’. Others are outraged that it took her just two months to earn a PhD from the University of Zimbabwe, and that it was awarded to her by her husband. But she has also been praised for her charitable work and many admire her strong and fiery manner.
Whether or not Grace Mugabe takes power in Zimbabwe remains to be seen. But political families are common in democracies across the world. This week it was suggested that Jeb Bush, son of one president and brother of another, might be running for the US presidency in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, wife of former president Bill Clinton. Politics in South Korea, Canada, Japan and the UK, to name just a few countries, is also filled with close-knit, powerful families.
Keep it in the family?
If family clans are good at exercising power then why worry, some say. The children of politicians are simply more likely to acquire political skills, having grown up in political households. It is understandable that voters are nostalgic for bygone days, and they enjoy the sense of stability that comes with a recognisable name. And if a leader is unpopular, they can always be voted out.
But others vehemently disagree. ‘How much are we willing to accept the sons and daughters of official privilege stomping citizens into irrelevancy?’ a US political commentator raged this week. Keeping politics in the family only leads to voter apathy, yet elections are meant to make us feel excited about a fresh, unknown new leader. Political leadership should be earned, not inherited.
- Is it right that political power is dominated by a few families in some countries?
- What factors or characteristics would you take into account when deciding whom to vote for?
- Go around the class and each shout out a feature or characteristic you think would be needed to be a successful leader. Be prepared to justify your choice.
- Do some research and find an example of a political dynasty from anywhere in the world. Write a brief summary of that family, and finish up with a paragraph giving your opinion on whether or not you think their share of power has been a success.
Some People Say...
“Politics is in the blood, not the genes.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Zimbabwe is far away. How does this affect me?
- Political families may be a new talking point in Zimbabwe, but they’re certainly not elsewhere. In the UK, one in 12 MPs is related to another current or former MP. Some argue that close-knit relationships are a stranglehold on power, and that a lack of social mobility within politics has a devastating effect on the quality of democracy.
- Because it means that only a handful of privileged people with powerful parents can obtain political positions. These people are then responsible for all sorts of decisions that affect your everyday life. Some people question whether this is fair. They say the political system should be more open to candidates from other walks of life, people with different experiences and views to offer.
- Robert Mugabe
- Mugabe was a key figure in Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence, and was initially praised for his attempts to unite the country. But he has also been accused of running an oppressive military regime which has killed thousands.
- Her main target has been Vice-President Joyce Mujuru, whom she described as ‘corrupt, an extortionist, incompetent, a gossiper, a liar and ungrateful.’
- South Korea
- In 2013 South Korea voted in its first female president, Park Geun-hye, daughter of Park Chung-hee, an earlier authoritarian leader.
- In 2013, Justin Trudeau became the leader of Canada’s Liberal Party. He is the son of Pierre Trudeau, who was prime minister between 1968 and 1984.
- The current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is the grandson of a former prime minister, and his father was also a politician.
- The Astors, the Cecils and the Chamberlains were all at one time or another prominent political families. The modern Labour party also has its so-called ‘red princes’ — a group of sons of politicians looking for a seat at the next election.