Jo-Ansie van Wyk – The First Ladies of Southern Africa: Trophies or Trailblazers?

This is a guest post by Jo-Ansie van Wyk, Department of Political Sciences, University of South Africa (Unisa), Pretoria, South Africa. It is based on her forthcoming article in Politikon.

No longer simply trophy wives, First Ladies (i.e. the spouse of the President or Prime Minister, excluding monarchs) in Southern Africa are an increasingly influential political force in the inner circle of presidents and politics. From peace missions to summits, First Ladies play a leadership role in the sustainable development and politics of the sub-region. In Africa, studies on political leadership and presidential studies predominantly focus   on, amongst others, the role of so-called Big Men, Presidents, electoral authoritarianism, and coup d’états. The region’s First Ladies have always wielded political power due to their proximity to, and membership of the inner circle of the Executive in their country. Therefore, the study of First Ladies offers valuable insights into presidential leadership, democratic accountability, and the role and status of women in Southern Africa.

The First Lady is more than often the symbolic representation of women’s role in a particular society. Closely related to this is her relation with the media, and vice versa. The representation of the First Lady in the media (often reinforcing certain gender stereotypes), and her involvement in her spouse’s political agenda contributes to her role as a political symbol. Therefore, her task, like that of her counterparts elsewhere, has developed from mere a State House hostess or beauty queen to a spokesperson of her husband’s political agenda. Despite this, the media often, perhaps due to gender stereotyping in a society, downplays the First Lady’s importance.

Several First Ladies are or have been married to liberation leaders-turned-Presidents; often bestowing on these women the title, Mother of the Nation, Mama or Founding First Lady. In several cases, the first post-independence First Lady was also referred to as the Mother of the Nation; thus acting as the symbol of the nation. This title was bestowed on, for example, Winnie Mandela (South Africa), Kovambo Theopoldine Katjimune, wife of Sam Nujoma (Namibia), Janet Museveni (Uganda), and Sally Mugabe of Zimbabwe whose political activism prior to entering State House and subsequent to it was indicative of the influence of her person. Some former First Ladies made a political comeback as either elected Members of Parliament (MPs) or presidential candidates. Miria Obote, widow of the late President Milton Obote of Uganda was a candidate for her husband’s political party, the Uganda People’s Congress, which ran the country from 1962 to 1971, and again from 1980 to 1985. President Obote was ousted in a coup by Yoweri Museveni. In 2014, after the death of her husband, Michael Sata (Zambia), while still in office, Christine Kaseba, Sata’s wife, joined the elections as a presidential candidate.

Apart from her influence derived from her close intimate relations with the President, two other factors determine the political and policy potency of a First Lady in a particular state, namely political institutions (the constitution and constitutional powers of the President; presidential campaigns and practices related to political parties and the media; legal and constitutional provisions related to the First Lady and her Office; the physical location of the Office of the First Lady) and socio-cultural factors (the role of women, gender and family in a society history; and culture).

A further illustration of the political influence of a First Lady is Agathe Habyarimana, wife of the late Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana. A Hutu by birth, Agathe Habyarimana has been described as the power behind her husband’s tenure and one of the masterminds behind the Rwanda Genocide of 1994. Juvenal Habyarimana’s inner circle – akazu (Kinyarwanda for ‘small house’), sometimes referred to as Le Réseau Zéro (Network Zero) – was also referred to a le clan de Madame (the First Lady’s clique). The akazu consisted of Agathe Habyarimana, her three brothers and husband (the President) and established their own death squad to eliminate political opponents; and had representatives in embassies and local governments; basically an oligarchy that infiltrated all layers of Rwandan society. More recently, reports of G40’s (Generation 40), a ruling party faction led by Grace Mugabe (Zimbabwe), involvement in succession matters in Zimbabwe emerged.

The First Lady is typically not a democratically elected, and thus not a publically accountable public official. However, Winnie Madikazela-Mandela (South Africa), for example, was both a publicly-elected official (an MP) and a First Lady as the wife of Nelson Mandela. Another example is Janet Museveni (Uganda) who is also a member of her husband’s Cabinet. The First Lady is also important to her husband in other respects. Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), for example, appointed his wife, Janet, in 2009 as Minister of State for Karamoja in an effort to achieve national unity. The Karamojong saw this as a positive development as Museveni has shown affection by sending his own wife to live and work among them.

For Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, his wife, Grace’s entry into politics has been meteoric but also acting as his surrogate. Since her appointment as Secretary for Women Affairs of the ruling party, ZANU-PF, in December 2014, she is a member of ZANU’s Politburo, the party’s highest decision-making body.

First Ladies have developed a public policy agenda independent of and/or parallel to of that of her husband’s government, giving rise to the notion of the First Lady as the ‘Social worker-in-Chief’. Africa is by far one of the most under-developed continents. Evidence of First Ladies’ response to this is the number of social foundations (aiming to achieve the Millennium Development Goals established by several African First Ladies. Amongst others are Ether Lungu’s (wife of Zambian President) Esther Lungu Trust Foundation; Burundian First Lady Denise Nkurunziza’s Buntu Foundation, with established partnerships with the United Nations Population Fund, aims to ‘create and build various ways of helping, supporting, teaching and coaching vulnerable and helpless people in the Burundian society like widows, elderly people, the orphans of HIV/AIDS and war, the disabled and the poor’. HIV/AIDS seems to be a major social concern for some Southern African First Ladies, including Marie Olive Lembé Kabila (DRC), and Janet Museveni (Uganda) who founded the organization, Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO) that, amongst others, tend to HIV/AIDS affected orphans. Salma Kikwete (Tanzania) is another First Lady that has established a social foundation, the Wanawake Na Maendeleo (WAMA) Foundation that aims to improve the life standards of women, girls and children. Despite their low public profile, Mmes Zuma have also established various Foundations: Nompumelelo MaNtuli-Zuma Foundation and the Tobeka Madiba-Zuma Foundation. The former has, for example, provided assistance to women in the Eastern Cape, whereas the Madiba-Zuma Foundation focuses on health with First Lady Madiba-Zuma currently serving as the chairperson of the Forum of African First Ladies against Breast and Cervical Cancer.

Margaret Kenyatta (Kenya) is also leading several social campaigns in her country. The Kenyan Ministry of Health has published a Strategic Framework for the engagement of the First Lady in HIV Control and Promotion of Maternal, Newborn and Child Health in Kenya. Her Beyond Zero Campaign focuses on maternal and child health for which she was recognised by the United Nations. Breaking ranks with her counterparts, Margaret Kenyatta (Kenya) is the first African First Lady to focus on animal rights. She is the patron of Hands off our Elephants Campaign and is cooperating with the United Nations Development Programme to combat poaching in Kenya and promote the welfare of wildlife.

Mozambique, Namibia, and South Africa define the role and purpose of the First Lady. Mozambique, for example, refers to ‘Primera Dama’ supported by the ‘Gabinete da Esposa do Presidente’ who has ‘official duties’ and a role in ‘achieving social and cultural initiatives she decides to develop’ Namibia defines the purpose of the Office of the First Lady as too effectively use the First Lady’s unique role to contribute to and compliment the efforts of the Government of Namibia. The Namibian government goes further and also identifies the relevant stakeholders engaging with the Office of the First Lady and includes, inter alia, the Office of the President; Government Ministries; the Namibian National Planning Commission; UN agencies and the World Bank; international organizations such as RAND Corporation and the African First Ladies’ Fellowship Programme; local NGOs and business communities; and the diplomatic community.

The Offices of First Ladies in Southern Africa are typically located in the Office of the President; thus centralizing the political affairs of the First Couple and allowing for the careful orchestration of the First Lady’s programme and image. A subservient First Lady implies a more traditional society in respect of the rights and status of women; implying Presidential preference in this regard. In contrast, a politically-ambitious First Lady such as Grace Mugabe and Janet Museveni has strengthened their husband’s position and power base. It should be noted, however, that First Ladies are more likely to play a number of these roles than to play one in particular.

So far, the emphasis here has been predominantly on the domestic role of the First Lady. For completeness’ sake and in the absence of scholarly work on the topic, the next section turn to one particularly externally-related function and role of the First Lady, namely diplomacy. The diplomatic role of First Ladies in Southern Africa is not limited to photo opportunities with foreign Heads of State and Government or state banquets contributing to a state’s foreign policy architecture; promoting the President’s image, agenda; and a state’s bi- and multilateral relations. Therefore, the First Lady intends not to embarrass her husband and his government; contravene diplomatic protocol; and contradict her country’s position on a particular issue. However, this diminishes, the agentic’ role of the First Lady, and entrenches male dominance in a state’s diplomatic relations and foreign policy-making.

Despite these diplomatic activities, the diplomatic role of First Ladies is constrained by several factors. She is, for example, not a publically elected or appointed foreign policy decision maker. A First Lady may also be constrained by cultural factors restricting the independence of women. A third factor is her husband’s political agenda and audience, and his intention to remain the single most important player in this arena.

The First Lady in a diplomatic context is typically her husband’s escort, fulfill an aesthetic role and act as a surrogate for her husband. Southern African First Ladies manage their husband’s credibility by ‘seducing’ foreign audiences and promoting their husbands’ political agenda. As an example of managing or contributing to her husband’s international credibility is the State House of Uganda’s report on the Global Decency Index that found Janet Museveni in 2014 as ‘the most decent African First Lady’.

The surrogate role of the Southern African First Lady is evident in Maria Guebuza’s (Mozambique) six day visit to India in 2011 on behalf of her husband and the Final Communique of the Seventh Roundtable of the Spouses of the COMESA Heads of State and Government. Herein, COMESA First Ladies referred to some of their husbands’ achievements and roles in the region.

Managing social issues and social advocacy are other rhetorical functions of First Lady Diplomacy. In May 2001, Jeanette Kagame (Rwanda), for example, hosted the first African First Ladies’ Summit on Children and HIV/AIDS Prevention in Kigali, Rwanda. Another example is the establishment of the Organisation of African First Ladies against HIV/AIDS (OFLA) in 2002 by 24 African First Ladies. With currently more than 40 members with each First Lady leading the national chapter of OFLA, the Organisation has established a Permanent Secretariat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2012 to coordinate their activities. By 2015, OFLA has not only made a commitment to eradicate polio on the continent, but is also in the process of signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to cooperate on eradicating polio.

The First Ladies of regional economic communities (RECs) often meet parallel to the Heads of State and Government of these RECs such as the Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Francophonie to discuss matters of mutual social concern. Another example of African First Ladies’ social advocacy is their establishment of the African Network of Women Peace Negotiators, at the sixth conference of the African First Ladies Peace Mission in 1997 in Nigeria. First Ladies play a particular international role during their husbands’ tenure and are thus a considerable diplomatic asset to their husbands. Their involvement in bi- and multilateral diplomacy fulfil certain rhetoric functions advancing the national interests of their respective countries.

Generally, the accountability of a First Lady remains ambiguous as she is not a publicly-elected official and has no constitutionally-prescribed role. Yet, some First Ladies in the sub-region are perceived to be entrenching a culture of no accountability which undermines the socio-economic development of the countries. Serving as a formal or informal advisor to her husband has raised concerns about the accountability of First Ladies in respect of their husbands’ policy and political decisions. This is a particular concern in, for example, brutal regimes. Some First Ladies in Southern Africa such as Denise Nkurunziza (Burundi) and Grace Mugabe (Zimbabwe) have been accused of supporting their husbands’ uninterrupted and undemocratic regimes. Southern African Presidents Sassou Nguesso (1979-1992, and since 1997), Robert Mugabe (since 1980), José dos Santos (since 1979), and Yoweri Museveni (since 1986) are among African longest serving presidents; a position the First Ladies have undoubtedly supported. Some African constitutions grant Executive immunity. Whether this is extended to the First Lady remains uncertain. The recent International Criminal Court’s (ICC) sentencing of Simone Ggagbo, former Ivorian First Lady, to a 20-year jail term for her role in the 2011 post-election crisis in Côte d’Ivoire – after her husband Laurent’s refusal to accept election defeat to the incumbent Alassane Ouattara in the 2010 elections triggered a transitory civil war that led to the death of 3 000 people – has renewed questions about the political ambitions and neutrality of First Ladies.

First Ladies in Southern Africa are influential political actors. Despite this, the region’s First Ladies are under-researched political actors; hence this exploratory study. I have shown that the Office of the First Lady is formally and informally institutionalized in the region by providing a new typology of the functions and role of Southern Africa’s First Ladies, as well as the implications thereof.

Besides focusing on the domestic arena, I have also focused on First Lady Diplomacy; another neglected academic area. Based on these, it is possible to deduce that First Ladies have personal, political and structural abilities to penetrate domestic, regional and international politics.  These abilities empower her to regulate societal relations; extract resources such as political support, tenders and government funding; and to appropriate and use material (funds, tenders) and immaterial (influence, status, prestige) public and private resources; abilities that, amongst others, raise questions about First Ladies’ accountability in respect to several identified matters, and the transparency of her public duties and private interests.

Besides these empirical findings, I also contend that, despite their own political experience, ambitions and influence, Southern African First Ladies remain subordinate to the patriarchy in their societies. A gender bias is evident in the position of First Ladies as the region had predominantly had male Executives; a situation likely to remain for some time. A second gender bias is evident in each Southern African states’ Constitution as none refers to this position; an aspect which undermines democratic accountability. Third, a gender bias is evident in the expectations of the role of the First Lady, i.e. spouse; mother; care-giver and nurturer of the sick, young, elderly etc.). Another gender bias is evident in the fact that the Office of the First Lady is fully directed from within the President’s office that often controls media flows and information that portrays the First Lady in patriarchal terms as a national symbol; the Ideal Woman; a trophy; and a trailblazer for issues stereotyped and associated with women.

Jo-Ansie van Wyk is Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Sciences, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa. She has published on political leadership in Africa, and South Africa’s foreign policy, and diplomacy.

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