They say that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Zimbabwe’s turmoil has had striking, almost uncanny echoes of China’s more than four decades ago. A charismatic figure revered for leading the struggle for liberation, yet reviled for his crimes once in power, is nearing the end of his long life, and evidently frail. The military and his party peers are increasingly jittery about their future. And at the heart of the struggle is the rise of his much younger, very ambitious wife.
Robert Mugabe has been forced out at 93, after he appeared to be moving to secure his wife’s position. Mao Zedong’s grip remained tight when he died at 82. But his wife, Jiang Qing ("Madame Mao”), lost the ensuing power struggle and was put on trial – as some say Grace Mugabe may be. When the head of the war veterans’ association compared the Mugabes to the Chinese couple on Tuesday, he was only the latest of many Zimbabweans to do so.
People there know the history well because of the long-term ties. Beijing was an early ally of Mugabe, but its interests are pragmatic, not ideological or personal. It wants stability and a friendly regime in Harare. That the president-in-waiting, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is a known quantity, having trained in China, is a bonus. And the men in Beijing have never seemed comfortable with female leaders.
Grace, like Jiang, came to the political forefront relatively late after marriage, and developed a young party clique around her: Jiang’s Gang of Four played a leading role in fomenting the devastating Cultural Revolution, while Grace fostered the G40, or Generation 40, grouping. Both humiliated established players and helped orchestrate their ousting. Both were bullies. Jiang was regarded – accurately – as volatile, vicious and vindictive. She caused countless deaths. "Gucci Grace” is seen not only as corrupt and extravagant, but also erratic and aggressive – unsurprisingly, given two very public cases of alleged assault overseas.
But they were regarded with disdain as well as dislike; hence the frequent reminders that Mugabe worked in a government typing pool, while Jiang was a Shanghai starlet before reinventing herself as a revolutionary. Their images align suspiciously neatly with archetypes of irrational, vicious women – and look all the worse in light of frequent comparisons with the "good”, selfless, patriotic women who preceded them. Sally Mugabe was known as the "mother” of Zimbabwe, while He Zizhen, Mao’s third wife, was a committed revolutionary who was forced to leave two of their babies behind during the Long March in the 1930s.
Ruthlessness, even unpredictability, hardly made either Jiang or Grace unique in their political spheres. Yet their allies and rivals never attracted the same visceral hatred. Both women became lightning rods for the grievances against their husbands. Pillorying them deflected blame from the men who sponsored them. These women were vehicles for their husband’s desire to maintain their legacies, and for factional interests as well as their own. As Jiang told her show trial: "I was Chairman Mao’s dog – I bit who he wanted me to bite.”
When the odds are stacked against women politically – more the case in China, then and now, than in Zimbabwe – the chances are that those who rise will have done so through personal connections. In Asia, this has sometimes allowed them to float above the fray, as if they have merely inherited a mission to fulfil from love and duty. But more often, and especially when their ambition is evident, these relationships are turned against them. And they, in turn, are weaponised against other women. Even now, the spectre of Jiang looms in China. For all the rhetoric of equality, no woman has ever reached the top political body.
Chipo Dendere, a Zimbabwean and postdoctoral fellow in political science at Amherst College in the US, notes that some women seem to have been drawn to Grace precisely because of the misogyny she faced. Now, she warns, "Women are going to be afraid to speak out when they recall Grace Mugabe. I think she will be used against them … There’s a sense of people saying: ‘Women, you gave us these problems.’”
Dendere points not just to protest slogans such as "We don’t want prostitutes in politics” and "Leadership is not sexually transmitted”, but also to previous elite attacks on both Grace and the other prominent Zimbabwean female politician, Joice Mujuru. She was vice-president to Robert Mugabe, until he ousted her, and boasted impressive credentials as a fighter in the liberation struggle. Even those were undermined by sexist attacks: she was accused of performing witchcraft to down an enemy aircraft, to capture and manipulate her husband (who had led Mugabe’s guerrilla forces during the liberation wars of the 1960s and 70s), and to defeat political enemies.
Yet young women in Zimbabwe have been trying to carve out a space for themselves, through activism such as the #shevotes campaign encouraging registration and voting. Many more took to the streets at the weekend to voice their demands for change. They believe they have a right and an opportunity to determine their future – even if they are realistic about the prospects of actually doing so. The kind of change these women want does not stop at seeing off the Mugabes. It means seeing off the powerful old men who ousted them as well.