I HAVE always shared the popular view that Zimbabwean First Lady Grace Mugabe’s strengths do not lie in the realm of the intellect.
By Mia Swart, South African Law Professor
I associated her with frivolous pursuits such as shopping extravaganzas in Paris and trips to the Jimmy Choo store in Sandton. The art of swiping the credit card, I thought, was her special brand of diplomacy.
How wrong I was.
In recent days I learnt, admittedly with astonishment, that she is an intellect of note.
Clearly, there is more to her than meets the eye.
According to media reports, she earned her PhD at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) in only two months.
Her thesis, according to the state-owned Herald newspaper, was on the changing social structure and functions of the family, with a focus on orphanages.
On second thought, however, Mugabe’s achievement does not seem so unlikely.
Throughout the ages, great minds have achieved intellectual feats in no time at all. Handel famously composed The Messiah in only three weeks. Our own first ladies would do well to look to the north for intellectual inspiration.
But Grace’s achievements do not end here. Her cosmopolitan academic background is evident from the fact that she earned a degree through a Chinese university in 2011. She is truly a global citizen, a woman for all seasons.
A lesser known fact about the talented First Lady is that she once studied English Literature through correspondence at the prestigious University of London.
Admittedly, her marks were less than stellar. For Explorations in Literature I, she obtained 9%, 18% for Explorations in Literature II, and 17% for Renaissance Comedy: Shakespeare and Jonson. The next year, she repeated the three subjects, but again failed two of them.
Mugabe’s marks clearly did not reflect her insights and true abilities. But it is well-known that some of the greatest intellects in history did not always translate into academic achievement. Urban legend has it that even Albert Einstein failed a few exams in his youth.
It is only natural that she would under-achieve considering the fact that she pursued her studies through an institution of the former coloniser. She simply made an error in judgment to register through the University of London.
According to recent media reports, President Robert Mugabe is grooming his wife to take over from him, which is only fitting. With her astonishing efficiency, she is bound to speed up the pace of social change and the land reform process. He has, after all, always been a man who recognises talent when he sees it.
He rescued Grace from a life of obscurity as a typist and propelled her into the highest circles and most sophisticated shoe shops in the world.
A first lady makes history; she does not need to study history. She was clearly misunderstood. In fact, she has complained before about being fundamentally misunderstood. In a rare interview, she revealed: “I’m not really what they say I am, I’m actually surprised to hear some of the things they say; that she’s a lazy person; she’s always eating. I don’t go for all these massages.”
As is so often the case with the gifted, there is much behind the surface of these words. Those who criticised her for the lightning speed with which she obtained her degree must have acted out of envy and frustration. They clearly also misunderstand her. But lesser beings have always resented the success of those with superior intellect.
In South Africa’s crisis in higher education, there is an urgent need for more PhDs — university administrators here should turn to Mugabe for advice. Having taken five years to earn my PhD, her success makes me feel deeply inadequate. I will certainly advise my post-graduate students to look at her example for inspiration.
Unfortunately, not much is known about her thesis. When asked for copies, the UZ said it would be available only in a year’s time. But the fact that she wrote on orphanages, indicates her sympathy for the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised.
No wonder she recently received a “Philantropist of the Year” award.
Zimbabwe has the highest number of HIV and Aids orphans in the world. Nearly a third of all children in Zimbabwe are orphans. The horrific rate of infant mortality is worsened by malnutrition and a decline in immunisation due to a lack of funds.
Mugabe made a faulty selection. Instead of choosing Renaissance Comedy, she should have chosen Renaissance Tragedy. It is the convention that Shakespearean tragedies end with the death of almost all characters. Something is rotten in the state of Zimbabwe.
Swart is professor of international law at the University of Johannesburg.