LIKE the dictator couple of Romania, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace have built a pervasive personality cult around themselves.
Not only did Mugabe and Ceausescu — awarded Freedom of the City of Harare in 1983 for training Zipra and Zanla freedom fighters during the liberation struggle — enjoy warm relations, but there are striking parallels on how their wives manoeuvred and wormed their way to the top.
The most interesting similarity is how both obtained PhD degrees under controversial circumstances, while enjoying saturation propaganda coverage from the state media to boost their egos and profiles.
Parallels can be drawn between the rise of Elena, executed in 1989 together with her dictator husband, with Grace, whose unexpected plunge into active Zanu PF politics has created a conflicting wave of support and opposition.
From humble beginnings, Elena, like Grace ended being involved in the matrix of power, although that was ill-fated in the case of Romanian dictator’s wife.
Like Elena, Grace emerged from nowhere in July as the Women’s League’s preferred boss.
In a political move that shook Zanu PF ahead of the party’s elective congress in December, senior female party officials nominated Grace for the powerful position of secretary for Women’s Affairs in the politburo, which was endorsed by the women at their conference last month.
It is thought Grace would end up as a Zanu PF central committee member, politburo official and cabinet minister, while she might also enter the succession race to replce her 90-year-old husband and build a political dynasty.
Last week Grace pulled another shocker when she was controversially awarded a PhD by the University of Zimbabwe (UZ).
As with Elena’s doctorate, questions have been raised about Grace’s PhD.
Grace’s graduation last week has raised a furore among academics at the UZ who are questioning her doctorate, which they say was obtained more through political patronage than academic merit.
Acquiring a doctoral degree is a long process which takes between three to six years.
Questions are also being asked if Grace will emerge as Zimbabwe’s own Elena, who became an ex-officio member of the cabinet in 1979 through her chairmanship of the National Council of Science and Technology.
By 1980 she was deputy premier, second in command to Nicolae himself.
According to a research paper, titled The Personality Cult of Elena Ceausescu by Carl Anderson, who was post-graduate student at the University of San Diego in the US, the period between 1970 and 1989 illustrates the gradual creation of Elena’s public personality through the intervention of her husband and propaganda as her publicists sought to portray her as an embodiment of the party’s ideal type of a communist woman.
Elena’s personality cult was deceitfully built around a dubious PhD in chemistry, party involvement, central committee positions and propaganda even though she had a poor education background as she barely finished elementary school.
However, after her execution in 1989, a former teacher exposed her.
At age 14, Elena dropped out of school after failing everything but needlework, singing and gymnastics, and then went to stay with her brother in Bucharest where she started working. She then met her soon-to-be husband, Nicolae at meetings of the Young Communists’ League.
While Nicolae was beginning his rise in the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) hierarchy, Elena worked as a secretary — Grace was also a secretary in Mugabe’s office — at the Foreign Affairs ministry, but due to her incompetence, she was fired.
Elena then began attending chemistry night courses at the Bucharest Municipal Adult Education Institute, but during an exam she was caught cheating and was expelled. Grace was deregistered in 2004 by University of London for repeatedly failing exams.
Nevertheless, by 1960 Elena had obtained a PhD after defending her thesis on the Stereospecific Polymerisation of Isoprene on the Stabilisation of Synthetic Rubbers and Copolymerisation.
However, there was no record of her ever obtaining a chemistry degree in advance of her doctorate.
Like Elena, what is known about Grace’s academic record is also disastrous.
In 1998, she failed all three subjects she was tested for at the University of London where she was studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.
She failed Explorations in Literature (I) as she got 9%, Explorations in Literature II (18%) and Renaissance Comedy: Shakespeare and Jonson (17%). The following year she repeated the three subjects, but again failed Explorations in Literature (I) 31%, Renaissance Comedy: Shakespeare and Jonson 29%.
She, however, salvaged a dumped down pass in Explorations in Literature (II) with a 42% mark. In the same year, she attempted an additional subject, Approaches to Text, but failed with a lowly 7% mark.
Also like Grace, Elena not satisfied with a false PhD; she also wanted political status. As Nicolae became the general secretary of the PCR in 1965 and president of Romania in 1967, Elena wanted to become more than just a “scientist”, and thus her political life and personality cult commenced.
Two years after her husband assumed power, Elena was elected member of the Communist Party’s Bucharest Municipal Committee, and it would not take long before more important appointments.
The personality cult that rapidly grew along with her scientific and political career had as its major outcome to promote her as mother, scientist and political woman.
On July 19 1972, at the national conference of the PCR, Elena was elected a full member of the central committee and from that moment on, she was nominated to many other important positions.
In 1973 she became a member of the party’s executive committee
In 1979, she was appointed an-ex officio member of the cabinet and by 1980 she was first deputy prime minister and the most powerful figure in Romania after Nicolae himself.
The question now is: Could Grace be gradually following in Elena’s footsteps?