The First Lady is an unofficial title used for the wife of a head of state, according to Wikipedia.
Collectively, the president and spouse are known as the First Couple and if they have a family, they are usually referred to as the First Family.
The designation First Lady seems to have originated in the United States, where one of the earliest references was applied to Martha, wife of former US president George Washington, according to the same website.
In an 1843 newspaper article that appeared in the Boston Courier author Sigourney, discussing how Martha had not changed even after her husband George became president, wrote that “the first lady of the nation still preserved the habits of early life”.
The world has, of course, seen first ladies of contrasting personalities, with different strengths, qualities and reputations.
Some first ladies prefer to stay in the background while others use their positions to advocate certain issues and publicly complement their husbands. Some have even played an important role within their husbands’ administrations.
Some first ladies have helped mould a permanent legacy for their husbands.
United States First Lady Michelle Obama, the first African-American First Lady, reputedly tends to walk a middle ground. One can think of her almost like a “mother of the nation” who takes interest in many social issues, without appearing to get too entangled in her husband Barack Obama’s duties.
Compare and contrast Michelle with Philippines former first lady Imelda Marcos who was virtually the opposite. The latter gained worldwide infamy for her exquisite shoe collection and plush lifestyle that was said to have cost millions of taxpayer’s money.
In Kenya, former first lady Lucy Kibaki is reported to have stormed a newsroom and assaulted a journalist for writing negative stories about her family.
Our own First Lady Grace has hogged the limelight since her wedding to President Robert Mugabe in 1996. A couple of weeks ago, Grace was said to be behind the push for the country’s controversial indigenisation policy blamed for scaring away potential investors.
According to a report by the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU), Grace’s losing of a dispute over the supply of milk to Nestlé Zimbabwe inspired the activation of the Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act by Mugabe.
The report, titled Madness and Indigenisation: A History of Insanity and in the Age of Lawlessness, reads: “The decision to activate the Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act (Chapter 14:33), which had been passed by Parliament in December 2007, but had lain dormant until 2009, seemed to have been motivated by petty vindictiveness after President Mugabe’s wife lost a dispute over the supply of milk by her dairy business to foreign-owned Nestlé Zimbabwe.”
True or not, this narrative represents a perception of the country’s First Lady who is known for her hunger for shopping, fashion and accumulation.
But why is Grace perceived to have a flamboyant lifestyle centred on self-aggrandisement?
The controversial circumstances of her wedding to Mugabe, who was not only more than twice her age, but had also sired a child with her before the death of his first wife, Sally, set tongues wagging in a conservative Zimbabwean society.
Over the years, the First Lady has courted controversy, prompting the public to draw parallels between her and Mugabe’s first wife, Ghanaian Sally (nee Hayfron), whom Mugabe met when he was teaching in the West African country in the 1950s.
Several accounts of Sally portray her as a gracious woman who lived a frugal life that belied her status as the First Lady of Zimbabwe.
She founded the Child Survival Foundation, a charity dedicated to improving the welfare of disadvantaged children which is now almost forgotten and widely credited with moulding Mugabe’s early presidency — the height of his popularity as a leader.
Grace is also portrayed in some sections of the media as a charitable person through her work at her elite school known as Amai Mugabe Junior School located in the once thriving farming area of Mazowe, but critics have accused her of using her charity to grab prime land for her personal benefit, leaving many families homeless.
Last month, Grace was reported by this newspaper to be building an opulent three-storey mansion at Mapfeni Farm, opposite her orphanage and the Amai Mugabe Junior School where she evicted close to 300 families in 2012.
Early last year, she was in the newspapers on allegations of grabbing 1 600 hectares of agro-producer Interfresh’s Mazowe Citrus Estate in Mashonaland Central.
This is in addition to taking over a farm from an elderly white couple in the area at the height of land invasions.
High Court judge Justice Ben Hlatshwayo has also accused her company, Gushungo Holdings, of grabbing his Gwina Farm in Banket in 2009.
Grace followed up on that by seizing Manzou Farm in 2011, this time from ordinary rural people who had grabbed the former game park in 2001 with the backing of Zanu PF.
This is a far cry from the mother of the nation symbol portrayed by Sally, who is remembered mainly for her affection for women, children and the downtrodden.
Apart from her work with children, Sally was also president of the Zimbabwe Leprosy Association.
Through her work, she was described by her fans on a Facebook page created in her memory as “very humble, polite and not materialistic — a true mother of the nation”.
In a book titled Dinner with Mugabe by late journalist Heidi Holland, Sally’s niece Patricia Bekele said her “mummy”, as she called her, always tried to come down to the level of the people she met as she tried to identify with the people.
“She didn’t want any distance from the people of Zimbabwe. She played the role of their mother,” she said.
Bekele said Sally also cared for the “social outcasts” and regularly adopted lost causes like the “growing ranks of prostitutes who were threatening to dominate the small town of Marondera during the late 80s”.
Under her patronage, the young women were given sewing machines in the hope that they would become seamstresses rather than commercial sex workers.
In the book Mugabe’s late brother Donato fondly remembers his brother’s marriage to Sally, but is reserved when it comes to giving his comments on Grace.
Holland writes: “Looking delighted at the thought of his sister-in-law (Sally), his (Donato’s) eyes stare into the space again for a while: ‘She was a very lovely person. It was a happy marriage,’ He remembers. ‘It was a happy time in Zimbabwe’.
“When I (Holland) mention Grace, Mugabe’s second wife, Donato nods sagely, offering no comment at first. ‘She gave him children,’ he says on reflection, nodding slowly again.”
Donato, who married Evelyn, a much younger wife than him saying that’s how it must be so that she can look after him in old age, laughed together with his wife to a question by Holland whether their relationship was similar to that of Grace and Robert?
“She (Evelyn) laughs uproariously at the thought of Grace taking care of Robert,” writes Holland. “Donato frowns and replies soberly, ‘Yes it’s the same with him.’ Then they glance at each other, laughing and shaking their heads.”
Social commentator Maxwell Saungweme said the two First Ladies, Sally and Grace, can never be compared as the difference between them is “glaring”.
Saungweme said: “As people say, the type of a wife one has to some extent determines how one runs one’s life; and for leaders, how they preside over their countries. The first one was more brainy and modest while the second one is not as endowed in that area and is more extravagant.
“It appears Sally was more focused and understood the values of the liberation struggle and tried to prop her husband through doing charity work that benefitted the needy without necessarily being extravagant about it.”
He said Grace’s charity work is littered with controversy, farm grabbing among other issues.
“Grace is a bit showy with an expensive taste. She is a bit more controversial, more outspoken and sometimes quite careless — the issue of Bona’s virginity is a case in point. Whatever measure one uses, the people of Zimbabwe will miss Sally as First Lady than they will do to Grace. The two cannot be compared,” said Saungweme.
However, Namibia-based journalist Wonder Guchu said in comparing the two, one should consider the age difference with Sally being modest and belonging to a different era while Grace is young and has swagger.
Guchu said: “Sally was not that complicated maybe because of the time she lived. The other thing is that Sally was not involved much in businesses or other such ventures which brought in money like Grace is today.
You should realise that a number of people are coming forward to donate in cash or kind to Grace’s school.
Why they are doing this could be a matter of conjecture — some want favours while others want association with the First Family.
“Age too plays a part here. Grace has swagger and much of what she does reflects on her character. Sally was older and she came from a different time.”