The Southern African Region finds itself at a position where it has three new heads of state and consequently three first ladies since November 2017 when events around Harare somewhat triggered an exodus of leadership within the region. Though in a somewhat dissimilar political activity, the past five months has seen the block inaugurate three heads of states . There hasn’t been such activity in the region since its formation and it could be hard to keep track of who runs what if you don’t pay close attention.
In this regard, the role of the first ladies who join the spotlight and play multiple roles in ensuring we have sound leadership throughout the tenure of their husband’s come to a close. Will they be trailblazers or mere trophies and what legacy will they leave for the continent?
Auxillia Mnangagwa would be the longest serving amongst the new three first ladies when her husband assumed power through a soft coup in November 2017. She took the reigns over one of the most notorious and infamous first ladies ever to grace this motherly role within a country. Grace was well known for her unmotherly like behaviour which became even more aggressive at the end of her husband’s downfall. Leading some to believe she played a big part in destroying a once revered Mugabe.
Three months later, after Jacob Zuma’s resignation, Tshepo Motsepe, wife to Ceril Rhamaphosa, the most educated of the new first ladies assumed the most influential post in the country taking over from a polyamorous pair involved with probably one of the worst post Apartheid presidents that South Africa has ever seen, Jacob Zuma.
Finally in Botswana, Mrs Neo Masisi assumes a post that has been vacant for the past ten years since Ian Khama assumed power. He never married until he stepped down. She will probably be most sought after considering the country went for a decade struggling at official functions. Although she assumes a a vacant post, she is most likely going to have it easy as the country enjoys a good economy and a good democratic persona far superior than that of the rest of the region.
The role of the first lady therefore cannot be lightly defined in today’s political landscape as they have proven to be crucial, enough to shape an entire administration single handedly. With the right partner off course.
The three countries combined have only had 13 presidents so far with Botswana and South Africa each tied at five a piece but very few first ladies amongst the pack stand out as ground breaking and as true heroines.
Most have tagged along for the ride and failed to contribute supportively to the work of their husbands, choosing to remain wives and mothers while the men go off to war.
The most successful in this regard have been the first ladies who have experienced the struggle and seen their husbands rise from the ashes into the most powerful seat in the land. It seems success and love from the people has often such women whilst those that seem to latch onto an already moving bandwagon, never quite catch the idea and the work ahead.
I am tempted to use the most distinct example of Sally Mugabe, the first wife to Robert Mugabe who defied all odds, fought against injustices, exiled and was a humanitarian at heart and not because of stature. She put her country first and sought to bring about a positive change for many through various initiatives before she passed away in 1992. One could easily say that was the start of all the problems in Zimbabwe.
When Mugabe re-married, the country got an opposite of ‘Amai’ Sally coupled with an ailing economy. ‘Gucci’ Grace saw it fit to parade her love for the finer things in life while the rest of the people suffered and lived below means. She became more paranoid and a nuisance to the nation until the time of her husband’s demise with her association with the G40 faction. If she could have paid particular attention to the plight of the people, she could have easily saved Mugabe’s administration and restored a legacy of the man who once was. Till today, even away from first lady responsibilities, she manages to attract bad press by being implicated in illegal ivory exportation and smuggling.
South Africa also had their own ‘mother of the nation’ in Winnie Madikizela – Mandela though she never assumed title of first lady. Her actions alone during the apartheid era where of a woman of strength until the end. Defying all odds for the betterment of her people and always assuming the never die attitude of a fighter.
This entire piece would be incomplete if I was not to mention Botswana’s first first lady Ruth Williams Khama whose life continues to be celebrated far and wide till today. A woman with a movie after her life and inter racial marriage to Seretse Khama. Despite her being white, Lady Ruth was revered as a mother of the nation and passionately loved by her people and the rest of the world. She stood for something greater than just being the white lady who married a prince.
IN today’s world, we need more and more of such women of virtue. Our daughters need more and more great examples such as Michelle Obama, Ruth Khama, Sally Mugabe and Winnie Mandela. They need to see the power a woman can wield at the highest ever position in the land and what can be achieved if a powerful couple stay strong together.
By the rate at which we are going I fear we might not have anything good to speak about in terms of first ladies. The new ‘mothers’ need to change and correct the mistakes of the past and blaze a path for many to follow.