The toxic masculinity that fuelled Mugabe’s reign in Zimbabwe – and ended it

For decades, a key facet of Robert Mugabe’s rule in Zimbabwe has been how he has used the symbols and rhetoric of the liberation war to support his claim to power, and undermine his rivals.

Eventually, he was brought down by that same rhetoric.

Zimbabwe’s nation building project solidified strict gender divisions, where ‘mothers of the nation’ support their men and instill a reputable culture to coming generations. The roles of men have been built around militarised masculinities as reflected in amadoda sibili (real men), a concept which revolves around the jealous protection and defense of the nation, to safeguard chimurenga (liberation struggle) gains such as land and sovereignty.

Men and women are positioned differently as subjects in the body politics of the Zimbabwean nation. Men are hailed as ‘sons of the soil.’ This locates men in the politics of belonging, since they are ‘sons of…,’ and in stories of resistance, since as sons they are called upon to defend or protect their natal place. This is how men like Robert Mugabe and currently, President Emmerson Mnangagwa and General Constantino Chiwenga have attained some element of messianic and godly identities. At various times, national narratives positioned them as guarding and defending nationhood.

On the other hand, the soil or land that gives birth to the sons is naturalised in the discourses of motherhood. This is why motherhood is revered, meaning those who represent it have to be women of ‘character.’ Anyone who deviates from or inverses the above parameters of nation formation is seen as a national dis[Grace], needing the intervention of amadoda sibili.

It is this liberationist and masculinist narrative that has shaped the Zimbabwean situation and made Zimbabwe’s future a complicated case, full of uncertainties, especially in the context of conflicting gender and generational interests.

From teacher to typist

In many cases, the national image is symbolically expressed through the character of the national women, specifically those who are public figures. Robert Mugabe’s first and second wife, Sally and Grace respectively, have entered the radar as images of the Zimbabwean nation at different times. Sally entered the scene during the years following national independence from colonial rule and during a period of Mugabe’s political ascendance and national growth.

Sally had been in the trenches during national formation. She supported Mugabe and the nationalist cause and rose within political ranks because of her hard work, thus earning herself the title ‘mother of the nation.’ Her public image was modest, mature, respectful and her participation in the struggle identified her with the chimurenga legacy and helped to nurture Mugabe as an acceptable ‘son of the soil’ who could be trusted with the nation.

Grace’s entrance came as Sally was dying – perhaps predicting the start of national bleeding. Her arrival in the 1990s saw the beginning of a national crisis, collapse and demoralization that has heightened with her political rise.

Grace attempted to construct herself along lines of motherhood, as expected in gendered constructions of nationhood. But she struggled to make that image stick. Having been a typist and Mugabe’s secret lover, in a patriarchal nation like Zimbabwe, she was all too often associated with the young, immature, loose urban woman image, the ‘small house’ or husband snatcher, known for corrupting men and destroying families. Recently, public discourses have been naming her ‘marujata,’ which refers to a loose, pompous wife lacking direction.

She pushed hard to be known as ‘Amai’ (mother), using this term at rallies and gatherings, claiming to be the ‘mother’ of and to all Zimbabweans. She used her involvement in orphanages and care homes to reinforce the mother identity. At rallies, she has distributed food and clothing to ‘her children’ as a mother who ‘cares’ and sustains livelihood. Her recent physical attack on the South African woman, Gabriella Engels, can be seen in the sense of a mother nurturing and protecting her sons from the ‘contamination’ of an ‘evil woman’.

However, falling outside the liberation war history, and unable to fit in with the old guard that grew suspicious of the new generations, Grace associated with a ZANU-PF faction known as the Generation 40 (G40). As G40, it lacks liberation war credentials or history, just like Grace. There have been narratives, especially from a former ZANU-PF member and Norton constituency parliamentary representative, Temba Mliswa, that the G40 are ‘gay gangsters.’ Such identities are seen as polluting the Zimbabwean national identity and threatening its survival and progression.

Grace was accused, among other crimes, of failing to satisfy her gendered roles of support, reproduction and nurturing. She is seen in terms of contamination, disturbing the natural body politic of ZANU-PF. In this view, since she has polluted Mugabe, both have to be eliminated from the political body to avoid further contamination. The point is that Grace has failed in being ‘mother of the nation.’ This is symbolically reflected by her wayward sons, her lack of respect and dignity as reflected by her public cursing of people, her failure to unite the Zimbabwean ‘family’ but instead trigger divisions. Her failure to stick to her gendered role of ‘nurturing’ the nation, and instead, usurping the role of ‘father of the nation’ and her disrespect of the liberation war history also make her conflict with the expectations of Zimbabwe’s national project.

Similar discourses of defilement have been associated with the Morgan Tsvangirai-led Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). At one time, Robert Mugabe claimed that a victory for Tsvangirai and the MDC would make the dead turn in their graves. Tsvangirai himself has been anglicised and caricatured as Tsvangson or ‘teaboy’ in a show of his foreignness, femininity, and homosexuality – all of which make him ‘incapable’ of leading Zimbabwe.

Mugabe’s recall from being leader of the party is, at least in part, due to his association with these national ‘pollutants’ which have defiled the masculinities expected from him as the ‘son of the soil.’ Mugabe is no longer part of the amadoda sibili, responsible for national protection, as the G40 has taken advantage of his age to corrupt him while his wife has taken over his responsibilities.

In contrast, Mnangagwa’s takeover, with military support as well as the support of the war veterans, is a continuation of ZANU-PF rule and the protection of the chimurenga legacy.

Zimbabwe may have a new president, but some things haven’t changed: ideas of manliness that date back to the liberation war remain the psychological space on which the Zimbabwean nation is constructed.

Tinashe Mawere is a Postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies and the Centre for Sexualities, Aids and Gender at the University of Pretoria. The above views appear in some of his work around nationalism, gender and sexuality carried out at the University of Western Cape’s Women’s and Gender Studies department and the Centre for Humanities Research and the department of Historical and Heritage Studies and the Centre for Sexualities, Aids and Gender at the University of Pretoria.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday