Sally Mugabe- From Ghana to Zimbabwe

by Alex T. Magaisa

As you drive due west out of Harare, there is a large concrete structure to the right and a series of hills on the opposite side of the road. The big concrete structure is the National Sports Stadium, Zimbabwe’s premier sports arena, built by the Chinese in the 1980s. A few years ago, it was in danger of collapsing due to structural weaknesses until the Chinese intervened with a refurbishment plan.

The hills are the final accommodation for men and women who, upon death, are declared heroes by the ZANU PF establishment, are interred at the National Heroes Acre. It was built the North Koreans, an uncanny coincidence which replicates the geographical positioning of the two countries in the Far East, they being neighbours and close allies.

Initially, hailed as a national institution at which revered heroes of the national liberation struggle who never made it to a free Zimbabwe were buried, the Heroes Acre has become a feature of ridicule in some quarters. This is partly because ZANU PF has privatised and monopolised the institution, cheapening its status. But there are a few who still attract national acclaim, the likes of Joshua Nkomo, Herbert Chitepo, Josiah Tongogara, and Jason Ziyapapa Moyo. Among these more admired residents of the national shrine is Sarah Mugabe, the original wife of Zimbabwe’s long-serving leader, President Robert Mugabe. Born Sally Sarah Francesca Hayfron, she was known throughout her life as Sally Mugabe.

Yesterday, 27 January, was the 25th anniversary of her death. This article is dedicated to her memory, not only because history matters, but because the younger generation in Zimbabwe and across Africa who know little about her remarkable career might gain some insight and perhaps, some inspiration, too. Her story is, of course, a complex affair, about which an essay of 7,000 words can hardly be regarded as adequate, which commends therefore that it be read as a starter, rather than the full meal.

The story begins in 1957, shortly after Ghana’s historic independence under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah, when a young bachelor from Rhodesia, Robert Gabriel Mugabe left his homeland, seeking fresh pastures in the West African country. A teacher by profession, he found work at a St Mary’s College, a teachers’ training college in Sekondi-Takoradi, a port city on the Atlantic coastline. It was there that the young Robert met Sally Hayfron.

Enchanted by her apparent beauty, intelligence and vivacious nature, young Robert sought courtship and eventually, the two found love. Speaking at a business forum in 2014, Mugabe shared a glimpse of his courting strategies. “I remember when I was still a bachelor staying in Ghana, I drove a German-made two door car and its colour was as blue as the sky but thinking of the colour now it is quite repulsive and not grounded. Looking back at the time, the colour was a means and a mechanism by a bachelor to attract women and let me say at the end of my adventure I found myself a wife and brought her back to Zimbabwe with me,” he said, reminiscing about his days as an adventurous bachelor.


When Mugabe returned home on vacation in 1960, he found that the political temperatures had risen quite significantly. He took his opportunity when he was invited to speak at one of the public gatherings in Salisbury. There, he showcased his public speaking prowess and enthralled audiences with tales of how his adopted home, the newly independent Ghana, was establishing a new and better society free of colonial overlords and racial discrimination. After this, by various accounts, not least Cephas Msipa’s in his autobiography, the highly articulate and charismatic Mugabe was persuaded by fellow nationalists to stay in Rhodesia rather than return to Ghana.

His bachelorhood however stood in his way of assuming leadership. It seemed to be the view that holy matrimony gave a man weight in status and a measure of respectability which were necessary for leadership. Robert Mugabe was an intelligent and articulate young man, but his bachelorhood did not sufficiently qualify him for leadership. They took a dim view of this and sought to rectify it. Apparently, some fellow nationalists conspired to find him a local wife. Edgar Tekere, one of Mugabe’s oldest comrades from those days, revealed in his autobiography that Mugabe got into a relationship with a local woman. Her name was Abigail Kurangwa. But Mugabe knew he had also left Sally in Ghana. Tekere wrote that when news got to Sally that plans were afoot to get her man a wife in Rhodesia, she quickly made arrangements to come down to Rhodesia. Soon thereafter, Robert and Sally got married in April 1961, at St Mary’s Catholic Church. And so began a marriage that was intimately tied to the politics of the nationalist struggle. With a young man from Southern Africa and a young woman from West Africa, theirs was an African union even before African countries gathered to form the precursor to the African Union.

Sally must have known from the beginning that she had married into politics, and would have to carry the burden of both the man and his politics. Far from it being a disincentive, it is a package that she probably found attractive. Patricia Bekele, her niece who was very close to her, told Heidi Holland in her book Dinner with Mugabe that Sally used to tell her to keep the letters that she was receiving from Mugabe when she wrote to him while he was in jail because one day he would be an important man. Sally seemed to have foreseen that the star would shine very brightly for her man. But she herself was no political novice. She had come from a politically-conscious family. She had been an activist during the Nkrumah-led fight for Ghanaian independence. Even as they courted in Ghana, politics was at the centre of their lives, with Mugabe expressing angst at the condition of his people back in Rhodesia, where there was racial domination and discrimination. As the quintessential political wife, Sally was to become the rock upon which Mugabe’s career was anchored, both before and after independence. As a duck would find comfort in water, Sally dived into the murky waters of Rhodesian politics and soon made her mark. Born and bred in West Africa, she was a Rhodesian now. Having arrived in Rome, she quickly adapted to the ways of the Romans.

Sally the political activist

Sally was among the leaders of the famous women’s demonstration in 1961, a protest organised against the proposed 1961 Constitution. The National Democratic Party (NDP), in which Robert had been inducted as the Publicity Secretary, had rejected the proposed constitution, which they believed was designed to hoodwink the black Africans and would delay independence by many years. The women’s protest was held at the offices of the then Prime Minister Edgar Whitehead’s offices. When the women refused to leave, police used force and set dogs upon them. Some were injured and many were arrested and detained. The magistrate pronounced that they were guilty of obstruction and they were sentenced to pay a fine of £6 or to serve 6 weeks in prison.

The women were defiant, refusing to pay the fines and therefore, electing to go to prison. Sally Mugabe is quoted in Tanya Lyons’ book Guns and Guerrilla Girls – Women in the Zimbabwean Liberation Struggle as saying, “We refused to pay the fine and went to prison …” However, ironically, the stance taken by the women did not go down well their husbands, some of whom came to prison and threatened to divorce their wines unless they agreed to pay the fines. The men threatened to get new wives in their absence if their women chose to remain in jail. In a stinging rebuke of men, Robert Mugabe is quoted in the same book as saying, “Women had shown greater courage and resolve, indeed far greater than the cowardly men”.

According to Sally, the women wanted to pursue a strategy of civil disobedience. “Our plan of action [while in jail was to refuse without exception to cooperate with the authorities, and finally we were charged and brought before the court. We went on a hunger strike and refused to eat the horrible food we were given …The concept was total disobedience …” she is quoted as saying in Tanya Lyons’ book, which refers to Sarah Kachingwe and others’ biography of Sally Mugabe.

However, threatened with divorce, most women succumbed and were released after they were bailed out by their husbands. Sally and a few others whose husbands were more supportive of the cause remained resolute and stayed until they were later released under a general release programme. Evidently, even in those early days, just months after her glorious wedding, Sally had already taken leadership and was proving her credentials as a pillar for her husband and his political career.

Behind every successful man …

To say behind every successful man there stands a woman is probably an overused cliché. But there is none more suitable to describe the relationship between Robert and Sally. She was there when he entered the fray, she was there too when he languished in Smith’s jails and she was right beside him when he ascended to the throne as the first Prime Minister of the newly independent Zimbabwe in 1980. The romance that had begun under the searing temperatures of Sekondi-Takoradi bloomed as Robert and Sally became the power couple of the newly independent Zimbabwe.

Sally took on an active and visible role during the liberation war in the 1970s, supporting her husband, who by now was the ZANU leader. There is a war-time video in which Mugabe and Sally are sitting together being interviewed by a Western journalist. When the journalist asks her what she thinks of white Rhodesians who regard her husband as a “thoroughly evil man” Sally makes clam pitch for her husband. “I think it hurts to some extent,” she says. “It hurts because these people who talk like that have not taken the trouble to get to know the man and they just speak from what they hear from others. They read from other newspapers what is propaganda against him and they take it in like that. This is what hurts.” It was one example of the defensive role she played in support of her husband during those difficult years.

One of her contemporaries and fellow revolutionary, Fay Chung devotes quite a few pages to her memory of Sally in her autobiography, Re-living the Second Chimurenga. “It was during this period that Sally Mugabe, [Mugabe’s] wife, made an indelible mark on the revolution in support of her husband’s claim to leadership. Sally Mugabe was a single-minded woman. She was characterised by her absolute dedication to the liberation of Zimbabwe,” writes Chung, herself an important participant in the liberation struggle and first-hand witness of Sally’s efforts.

Chung extolls the virtues of Sally, saying she was a hard-working woman who used her role to mobile support for freedom fighters and refugees in the refugee camps in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia.  She writes, “A very practical person, Sally supported the liberation struggle in simple and practical ways. She collected cloth and sewing machines from donors. These were distributed to every refugee camp for Zimbabweans. She provided cloth to enable tailoring workshops to be established in every camp. She herself sewed shirts, skirts, and trousers, and distributed them in military and refugee camps. I myself received a skirt from her. These clothes were much appreciated in the camps. Young recruits in threadbare clothes, often exposing their backs and buttocks, appreciated the clothes she sent”.

In his book, Sweden and National Liberation in Southern Africa Terr Selstrom also points out that Sally Mugabe played a key role mobilising Swedish solidarity and support for the national liberation struggle. Sellstrom quotes Hallencreutz who was a board member of SIDA commented that “one person more than anybody else who managed to carry home the cause of ZANU and Zimbabwe to the Swedish public was the late Mrs Sally Mugabe”.

Naturally, the work that Sally did gave weight to Mugabe’s leadership role within ZANU, especially at a time when there were serious leadership disputes. There was a strong symbolic significance to the support that she was giving to freedom fighters and refugees. She was seen as a concerned and compassionate mother of the revolution, an image that continued to hold significance after independence, which earned her the title as the original Amai Mugabe.  In Chung’s words, “She was seen as a caring and concerned person who was doing her best to alleviate the suffering of the freedom fighters and refugees. This was an important contribution to her husband’s political popularity. Through her tireless work, she created the political image of a caring and dedicated leadership.”

When Mugabe was in jail, Sally played an important role assisting him with books and materials as he studied for his numerous degrees. In her book, Dinner with Mugabe, Heidi Holland quotes an extensive interview with Sally’s niece Patricia Bekele who explains how Sally would gather and send books and materials for his studies. Mugabe spent his years in jail studying for his degrees and teaching fellow inmates. His current deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was one of his students. Sally spent hours in London libraries, collecting books and sending copies to Mugabe. However, according to Bekele, since some books were banned in Zimbabwe, Sally would meticulously and painstakingly copy sections from the banned copies by hand and send them to her husband in jail by surreptitious means. “She would paste [copies] into a toothpaste box I the hope that the warders would not spot it … The time she spent copying these notes to him in the library was incredible. It was clearly for love; sheer love,” says Bekele.

Losing Nhamo

It is a truism that no parent should ever have to bury their child. It is even worse to have to do it alone, to carry the burden of mourning, without the other parent. This is the unkind set of circumstances that befell Sally in 1966, when their young child died. Robert was in jail back in Rhodesia when this happened. Robert and Sally had been blessed with a baby son in 1963. They called him Nhamodzenyika, the nation’s troubles – in reference to the troubles that their country was going through and the challenges the boy’s parents had to carry. According to Patricia Bekele, when Sally’s mother asked why they had given him that name, Robert explained that his parents had to live separate lives on account of the country’s troubles, a nation they were fighting to liberate and therefore it was befitting. When Mugabe and other nationalists returned to Rhodesia from Tanzania where they had sought sanctuary, Robert and Sally agreed that she would take their son to Ghana. Sally could not return to Rhodesia because she would have been arrested, leading to separation from her young baby. When they had left Rhodesia, Sally had skipped bail and there was a warrant for her arrest. Going to Ghana for a while to stay with her parents was a suitable option which they agreed to take.

Sadly, young Nhamo’s candle did not burn for long before it was quickly and cruelly smothered. The boy did not live long. He contracted cerebral malaria and died in December 1966. He was only 3. It was a terrible tragedy for the young couple, Robert and Sally. What was already an unbearable tragedy was made worse by the refusal of the Smith regime to grant Mugabe permission to go and join his wife to bury their son. This blow was more brutal than the hand of death itself. It left Sally, the young mother, to carry the burden alone.  Robert’s brother, Donato made the long trip to Ghana to comfort his sister in law. Donato became Mugabe’s representative in the darkest moments of his family life, for when Sally died in 1992, it fell upon his shoulders once again to fly to Ghana to be the messenger of the sad news to her family.

Patricia Bekele describes Sally’s situation at the difficult time when their son died. She is quoted in Heidi Holland’s book, “When Mummy got the news that Nhamo had gone, she just screamed and screamed. Then she was sad for a long time, so sad … she was also very sad that Uncle Bob had not been able to see more of Nhamo … I remember how much she cried again when she heard that they wouldn’t release him (from prison) for the funeral. She became quite bitter against the white regime after that.” It obviously hurt Mugabe too, and although he appeared to be more forgiving towards the white regime in the early years of independence, his actions later suggest it’s a bitterness that never left his heart.

This account of this terrible time is corroborated by Malcolm Fraser, former Prime Minister of Australia writing in The Australian newspaper on 17 April 2008, explaining why he had backed Mugabe in the early years. He cited the magnanimity that Mugabe had shown to his former jailers. He wrote that when Mugabe’s child was seriously ill in 1966, an English bishop had offered to “play hostage for Mugabe in jail” if Smith permitted “Mugabe to visit Sally and give support to her because of the severity of the child’s illness. Smith’s answer was a blunt no: it was a communist trick, he would have none of it.” The English bishop made the same offer when the child died, offering to play hostage for Mugabe in jail if Smith allowed Mugabe to be with his wife at their child’s funeral. According to Fraser, “Smith’s response was as blunt as before: he had already said that it was a communist trick. The fact the child was dead did not alter that.”

Sir Walter Prendergast, former British High Commissioner to Zimbabwe between 1989 and 1992 also echoed the same sentiments in a 2012 interview at Cambridge University. He explained how Mugabe had gone through “the very distressing experience of having his only child die of malaria in Ghana and not being allowed to go to see him. He was incarcerated at the time, without trial, under detention. He said to the regime that he wanted to go to his son’s funeral in Ghana and he promised that if they let him out, he would come back and go back to detention and I’m sure he meant to but they wouldn’t let him go and so there was a certain bitterness …”

The sadness of loss was compounded when it became clear that Sally would never have children again because of a medical condition which eventually took her to the grave. She had high blood pressure and kidney complications. In any event, she had to spend her prime years separated from her husband, who was detained by the Smith regime for ten years. Since Mugabe was in jail for 10 years, they had only spent 3 years together in the first 13 years of their life. Her condition was unfortunate and not of her making, yet she seemed to have been condemned to take more punishment as if it were her fault. That she could not have children apparently became the justification peddled to explain Robert’s taking of a second wife during the painful twilight period of her life.

Without children of her own, Sally doted on young children, particularly orphans, for whom she established a charity. One of her marquee projects after independence was the Child Survival and Development Foundation, established to look after the welfare of children. Her love for children was legendary, cementing her title as Amai Mugabe. Sadly, after her death, her projects, including the Child Survival Foundation have either struggled or gone into oblivion. As you drive on the Domboshawa Road from Harare, one can see dilapidated structures bearing her name, symbolic of the utter neglect of her legacy after her departure.


The loss of her son, the forced separation from her husband by colonial authorities, immigration troubles in Britain and her subsequent illness may have hurt her a great deal, but it is, arguably, the betrayal by her husband at a time when she was frail, in pain and terminally ill that must have killed her spirit long before the drew her last breath. In the late 1980s, her husband to whom she had been so devoted and loyal for so many years began an affair with a young secretary who worked in his office. The secretary was a beautiful mother of one called Grace Marufu, then married to a military officer Stanley Goreraza. By various accounts, Sally had long become aware of her husband’s extra-marital affair and it hurt her badly. Robert and Grace’s affair had already produced an illegitimate child, Bona, who was born in 1990, two years before Sally’s death. The young girl was named after Mugabe’s mother, the family matriarch.

According to Fay Chung, Sally was not popular among the close tribal circle that surrounded Mugabe. They perceived her as a stumbling block to their ambitions of hegemony and favours which they believed were due to them by association with the most powerful man in the land. Sally was a more open character whose Ghanaian roots meant she did not susceptible to tribal allegiances or biases within Zimbabwe. Chung writes that Sally believed these tribal conspirators were determined to replace her with a local wife. Chung also reveals that it was so bad that in her final years, feeling isolated, ostracised, betrayed and seeing the machinations against her as Mugabe took on a new wife, Sally was considering returning to Ghana, her home country. Chung explains, “Sally, a very sensitive and intelligent woman, was well aware of these machinations. She interpreted them as reflecting an inability of Zimbabweans to accept her wholeheartedly because she was a Ghanaian. In her last years, she was even contemplating returning to her home country. She remained only out of loyalty to her husband, despite the painful situation she found herself in of being replaced by a younger, more beautiful, and more fecund second wife who had already produced a child for Mugabe some years before Sally’s death.”

That she was aware of Grace’s arrival before her death is corroborated by her niece, Patricia Bekele who refers to Grace rather dismissively as “that young woman [who arrived] before Mummy died”. Bekele says Sally “didn’t like it” (the arrival of Grace) but being old school, “her motto was to carry on in gracious style.”

Mugabe himself has recently spoken about this situation. In an interview with Dali Tambo for a TV show in 2013, Mugabe recounted how he had confessed his affair to Sally as she lay dying.

After Sally was gone it was necessary for me to look for someone and, even as Sally was still going through her last few days, although it might have appeared to some as cruel, I said to myself well, it’s not just myself needing children, my mother has all the time said, ah, am I going to die without seeing grandchildren? So I decided to make love to her [Grace]. She happened to be one of the nearest and she was a divorcee herself, and so it was. We got our first child when my mother was still alive.”

He did not mention that the child arrived while Sally was still alive and long before he confessed to her in those final days. Implicit in the statement is that he realises it was cruel on Sally, but he put his interests and his mother’s interests first. It is also ironic that for Mugabe at this time Grace was no more than a baby-making machine for him, a factory for the transmission of his genes.

When asked by Tambo if he had told Sally about the illicit affair with Grace, Mugabe said: “I did tell her and she just kept quiet and said fine but she did ask, ‘Do you still love me?’ I said yes. And she said, ‘Oh, fine’.” He spoke softly and casually but it must have been very sad and painful for Sally when he made the confession. That the confession came towards the end of her life, long after the illicit liaison with Grace had produced a child, suggests it was more for his benefit than for Sally. As a Catholic, for whom the ritual of confession is central to the faith, he probably believed a confession before Sally’s death would make his indiscretions lighter and thaw personal guilt. He didn’t realise that the words were like a dagger to her dying and betrayed heart. By then, she was already helpless and vulnerable, what could she do? She had stood by him all these years, patiently waited for him during his time in Smith’s jail, and here she was, lying in bed waiting for the final day, and her husband rewarded her with a confession of his illicit affair, which had been kept secret all along, but of which she was already aware.

The justification for the illicit affair which Mugabe gives is rather feeble and selfish. He says he did it for his mother, who wanted grandchildren. Put differently, it was Sally’s fault because she could not give his mother grandchildren. That she was terminally ill, which should have been known to both since according to Chung, she had been on dialysis for nearly two decades and she was going on dialysis twice a week, did not deter him.

It is sad to imagine that after all those years and struggles, Sally may have regretted her decision to marry in 1961. Chung recounts how Sally had told her that the white magistrate who registered their marriage when she first came to Rhodesia had warned her that polygamy was commonly practiced among the Africans and that she should give it serious thought and consideration before committing herself to marriage with a Rhodesian. “Sadly for her,” writes Chung, “this white magistrate’s warning came back to haunt her in the last years of her life, when her husband decided to take a second wife”.

Sally may never have got the chance to hit back at the young woman who took her husband, but her family has never forgiven Grace. An opportunity was availed to them in 2007 when Mugabe and Grace attended Ghana’s 50th anniversary of its independence. While there, Mugabe took that opportunity to visit his in-laws, Sally’s family in Sekondi-Takoradi. He, rather unwisely, took Grace along with him. The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper of 9 March 2007 reported that Grace suffered a huge embarrassment when she was barred by Sally’s family from entering their home. The newspaper reported that George Charamba, the Presidential spokesman had confirmed the incident. “There was a small misunderstanding between the presidential delegation and some of the family members of the late First Lady. You must understand that the president is a married man and what happened is a fairly normal tension in an African marriage,” he is quoted by the paper as having said when asked about the incident. Apparently Grace had to wait in the vehicle while Mugabe met his in-laws.


Her caring and amiable reputation notwithstanding, there were also some rumours that she may have been involved in some unsavoury deals. One notable example was the rumour that she had been involved in the Willowgate Scandal – a huge 1980s corruption scandal in which senior government ministers and officials had corruptly acquired vehicles at low prices from a state vehicle assembler and sold them at extremely high prices at a time when the supply of new vehicles was scarce. The subsequent enquiry, the Sandura Commission, unearthed gross levels of corruption which claimed the political careers a number of senior government ministers among them Mugabe’s peers, Maurice Nyagumbo and Enos Nkala.

It was in this context that a rumour circulated that Sally Mugabe had also enjoyed profits from the scandal. However, the acclaimed journalist and editor of The Chronicle newspaper which sensationally broke the story, Geoffrey Nyarota wrote in his book, Against the Grain: Memoirs of a Zimbabwean Newsman, that while there had been a rumour regarding Sally’s role, it had never been established as a fact. “One of the rumours that had been circulating was that the First Lady, Sally Mugabe, was involved in Willowgate. Our own investigation had unearthed no evidence to substantiate this,” writes Nyarota. He reveals that he later learnt that one of the persons under investigation had started the rumour in a bid to incite Mugabe to silence The Chronicle newspaper. Nyarota says “the gossip was so strong that I was accused of covering up for Sally …” While acknowledging that she was “not above controversy on occasion”, Nyarota says those peddling the rumour failed to furnish any evidence.  In Geoff Hill’s book, The Battle for Zimbabwe: The Final Countdown, Nyarota is quoted as saying, “We published only the proven facts and while there were rumours about Sally, there was no evidence.”

In her autobiographical account, Fay Chung offers an explanation as to why, if she did, Sally might have shipped a vehicle to Ghana. She connects it to Sally’s desire towards the end of her life, when she felt betrayed by her husband who had taken on a mistress and suspected his close associates were plotting against her.  “[Sally] was accused of sending a car from Zimbabwe to Ghana during the 1988 “Willowgate” car scandal, when a number of top politicians were accused of using their positions to obtain cars,” writes Chung. “This was perhaps more a symptom of what had happened to her marriage by that time. Sally was terminally ill, and Mugabe had begun an affair with Grace Marufu, whom he was to marry in 1994, two years after Sally’s death. Sally was considering moving back to Ghana.”

What is evident is that the accounts are not conclusive. Nyarota’s account shows that no evidence was ever furnished to back the claim. It could mean she was not involved at all. But it could also mean the evidence of her involvement was suppressed. It could also mean that it was just a baseless rumour. For her part, Chung offers an explanation as to why she might have taken advantage of the car scheme, which suggests something happened but there was a reason for it.

There has been controversy in recent months over the appointment of Simba Chikore, Mugabe’s son-in-law as Chief Operating Officer of Air Zimbabwe. Simba Chikore is Bona Mugabe’s husband. What most people don’t realise is Patricia Bekele’s husband, was also posted to the same parastatal for many years. where he was in the senior management. As already pointed out, Patricia Bekele came to Zimbabwe as Sally’s niece, which makes Bekele, an Ethiopian, also an indirect son-in-law to the Mugabes. Air Zimbabwe therefore appears to be to have gained a reputation as a playground for the Mugabe sons-in-law.

There was also a rumour that a dialysis machine had been specially procured for Sally Mugabe for her kidney condition and this was used by her critics as an example of her excesses and corruption. However, the website refutes this as a “false accusation” reporting instead that the dialysis machine was a personal gift bought for Sally by Lord and Lady Soames in the 1980s after they became aware of her condition. Lord Soames was the man given the task of managing the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe between 1979 and 1980. As Governor and the Queen’s representative, he oversaw the first multi-racial elections in 1980 and got to know Muagbe well. Lady Soames was a child of Winston Churchill, the legendary British Prime Minister. The Soames and Mugabes formed a strong relationship from those early days. When Lord Soames died, the Mugabes were in attendance at the funeral. In return, Lady Soames was in attendance as representative of the Queen at Sally’s funeral in 1992.

One account in Heidi Holland’s book suggests that Mugabe threw a chair into a glass panel in disgust and anger when he learnt after Sally’s death that she had left all her wealth to her sister and family in Ghana. Apparently, in order to avoid a paper trial linking funds to him, the Mugabe family funds had been kept abroad in Swiss bank accounts in her name. It might have been Sally’s strike back following her husband’s betrayal towards the end of her life when she knew he had taken on a second wife. Separately, Sally’s estate sparked a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe (Hartnack v Master of the High Court & Anor 1993 (1) ZLR 137 (SC)). At the time, the law on the administration of deceased estates’ allowed any person to inspect the accounts of an estate. Michael Hartnack, a journalist, approached the Master of the High Court to inspect the account of Sally Mugabe’s estate. However, the Master of the High Court denied him permission to do so, arguing that he had not proven a financial interest in the estate. Hartnack approached the High Court for relief but his application was denied on the ground that the matter was not urgent.

However, the Supreme Court overturned the Justice Smith’s decision, holding that the law permitted any person to inspect the account of a deceased estate. The Master did not have the power to prohibit an inspection of the account. Apparently, this decision prompted a change in the law to restrict access to such estates. While Hartnack was permitted by the Supreme Court to inspect the account, it is not clear at the time of writing what he found. Unfortunately, Hartnack died in 2006 and records of his findings and report on the estate are still the subject of further research. Nevertheless, the court case remains fundamental in that it reveals the extent to which the authorities went to suppress access to and information regarding Sally Mugabe’s estate. It suggests there was something the authorities were trying to keep away from the public.

Seeking sanctuary

The years of forced separation from her husband were hard for Sally. Not only did she lose the comfort and society of her husband, but she had to endure the loss of her only son alone and thereafter suffer an illness which would eventually end her life. However, in the midst of all this, she suffered the indignity of being pushed from pillar to post, as she literally begged the British authorities to let her stay in Britain.

After Nhamo’s death Sally had moved to Britain in 1967, where she studied a secretarial course. She returned to Ghana in 1968 but went back to Britain where she was associated with the British Ariel Foundation. Between 1969 and 1970 she worked for the Africa Centre. When she sought permission to stay and work in Britain at the end of her visa, the Home Office denied her application. This was the start of a challenging period during which she was threatened with deportation back to Ghana. Her situation was complicated by the fact that she held a Ghanaian passport and was therefore regarded and treated as Ghanaian national. She and her supporters were keen however to emphasise that the Ghanaian passport was for convenience but that she was now a Rhodesian citizen by virtue of her marriage to Mugabe. Her station as Mugabe’s wife bought her a number of influential supporters and sympathisers in the civic society sector and some members of the British establishment, who pushed her case with authorities.

The Home Office insisted on a rigid and strict application of the rules, arguing that there was no reason to give her case any special treatment. The Foreign Office on the other hand, while acknowledging the legal technicalities, tried to urge a more compassionate approach given the political implications of deporting Mugabe’s wife. Although it was not known that Mugabe would become a future leader of Zimbabwe, the Foreign Office had the sense to anticipate that as one of the leading nationalists detained by an illegal regime, Mugabe might one day become an important person and it was not in Britain’s interests to upset him. Sally, who lived in Ealing Broadway, West London, pleaded with the British authorities. Confidential documents available at the National Archives, reveal the correspondence that went on between the various parties at the highest levels of government in respect of the Sally matter. In one letter to Maurice Foley, who was a sympathetic minister in the Foreign Office, Sally pleaded, “I am surprised at this decision in spite of my plight. I am completely at a loss to know how else I could have written to touch the hearts of the decision makers … May employers have already indicated that she cannot keep me for long and I can understand her fears.  But I must live whilst this scrutiny goes on.” It was a desperate situation.

The situation became so distressing for Sally that Mugabe sent a telegram from Salisbury Prison and subsequently, a long handwritten letter to the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, making an eloquent and passionate plea on his wife’s behalf. “… it is clear to me that the Home Office is hanging on to legal technicalities completely deprived of morality,” wrote Mugabe in 1970 in reference to the British immigration authorities’ insistence that Sally be returned to Ghana because she had entered Britain on a Ghanaian passport. “My wife belongs to Rhodesia where I am and not to Ghana where your Government wants her to go,” he insisted. “More than that, Sir, I hold that the British Government owes definite moral responsibilities towards not only persons in my circumstances but their wives and dependents as well. My wife, whose health has never been satisfactory since the loss of our son in 1966, is at present suffering a serious emotional upset as a result of the decision of the Home Office. Surely the fact of my detention is enough suffering for her already … May I request, Sir, that you personally exercise your mind on the case I have placed before you so that justice is done to my wife and myself.” It was a desperate plea. Mugabe even apologised for sending the letter from jail as it meant Downing Street had to pay a surcharge to receive it. It was similar to what Zimbabweans of the letter-writing generation would know as a “Pay Forward”.

Eventually, after a big media campaign and a petition signed by at least 400 MPs, the British authorities relented and allowed Sally to stay.

The irony of Mugabe making such a passionate appeal to the British government on behalf of his wife is not lost on most Zimbabweans today, especially those in the Diaspora. In recent years, Mugabe has been scathing about Britain, describing it in unfavourable terms. Yet, then, in the 1970s he was pleading for his wife to be allowed to stay in Britain. More significantly, there are thousands of Zimbabweans who have had to flee to Britain for political and economic reasons and have, like his first wife Sally, had to apply for sanctuary. For many, they can relate to Sally’s experience. The letter that Mugabe wrote to the British Prime Minister from prison could be written by any spouse or parent of a Zimbabwean who is today struggling to get sanctuary in Britain and facing serious challenges with the immigration bureaucracy. Many of them have encountered exactly the same problems that Sally faced back in the 1970s. Where Sally travelled on a Ghanaian passport, some Zimbabweans have had to travel on Malawian passports. Where Sally was told by the British authorities to go back to Ghana, these Zimbabweans have also been told to go back to Malawi. The parallels are uncanny. It is an intriguing thought to imagine what Sally could have made of the thousands of Zimbabweans experiencing exactly what she went through 40 years ago. Would she have been more sympathetic? Or would she have forgotten, like her husband appears to have done, given how he often mocks the Zimbabwean Diaspora?

Restraint on Mugabe?

Critics of Robert Mugabe’s second wife, Grace often compare her unfavourably to Sally, the first wife. Grace is accused of profligacy, while Sally is lauded for her so-called modesty. Rather than the Gucci stilettos and Armani outfits that Grace favours, Sally was comfortable in her two piece Ghanaian dresses and an elaborate headdress, which was her trademark. But these comparisons are hardly fair. Sally’s world in the years following independence had less public scrutiny than the world that Grace inhabits. The public has far greater access today to what goes on around the First Lady than was the case in the 1980s. Grace’s excesses are more visible compared to what went on in Sally’s world.

Another point that is often made when people hanker after the Sally years is that she would have been a far stronger restraining figure than Grace has been. The charge is that Mugabe has remained in office for too long on account of a younger wife who would love him to stay there, to enjoy the benefits of power. The view is that Sally was more of restraint upon Mugabe than Grace has ever been. But this argument is also not without holes. Firstly, it underestimates the strength of Mugabe’s personal resolve to hold power for life and overestimates Grace’s power. It assumes that Mugabe is controlled or submits to the control of his spouses. But Mugabe is a stubborn and strong-headed character. Mugabe is not a victim of his younger wife’s ambitions. He’s the chief architect of his own fate. He is in power at nearly 93 because that is absolutely what he wants. It is mere speculation to think that Sally would have been a more restraining influence upon him than Grace’s has been.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, those who believe Sally would have restrained Mugabe in his later years ignore the evidence that he presided over the worst atrocities in post-independent Zimbabwe at a time when he was married to Sally. Gukurahundi, the genocidal campaign during which an estimated 20,000 people were killed in cold-blood in Matebeleland and the Midlands, happened during the country’s darkest period between 1982 and 1987. Sally, not Grace, was his wife. If the argument that Sally had a more restraining influence upon Mugabe, how could such egregious excesses have happened when they were together without her stopping him? How would you credit Sally with having power to restrain Mugabe without at the same time making her complicit for not restraining him from engaging in excesses. The more reasonable proposition is that when it comes to political decisions, Mugabe’s wives have not had as much influence as people ascribe to them. If Sally failed to restrain Mugabe over Gukurahundi, there is no reason to believe that she would have done better than Grace in relation to Murambatsvina or the 2008 election violence, both of which were smaller in scale.

Furthermore, Mugabe’s path towards centralisation of power and dictatorship began in the 1980s, when Sally was his wife. The historic ZANU PF Congress in 1984 gave Mugabe extensive powers to appoint members of the Politburo, the executive arm of the party, taking away the power to elect by members. The infamous Constitutional Amendment No. 7 which created the Executive Presidency was passed in 1987. It was on that account that Sally became the second First Lady, after Janet Banana, wife to President Canaan Banana, who was a ceremonial President. These acts of centralisation of power in Mugabe’s hands were done during Sally’s time. How could this be possible if the argument that she had more restraining influence over Mugabe is valid?

Most people were surprised by Grace’s late entry into the political arena and even more so by the suggestion that she was aiming to take over from her husband. She has made many statements, including grand claims of the power that she holds over the Vice Presidents. These extravagant forays have not been popular. But few realise that by the time Sally Mugabe died, she had also ascended to the role of head of the Women’s League in ZANU PF. Like Grace, she also sat in the Politburo, ZANU PF’s powerful executive arm. But unlike Grace, Sally had always been in the political trenches. She was not a late arrival to the party. In 1978, she had become the deputy secretary for women’s affairs in ZANU PF’s Women’s League with Joice Mujuru as her boss.

What is more significant, in my opinion, is to consider the loss of Sally, a close companion and confidant from their early years, as part of a bigger network of peers who might have challenged and restrained him. This network of peers include his war-time comrades like Josiah Tongogara, Joshua Nkomo, Maurice Nyagumbo, Simon Muzenda, Edgar Tekere, Edison Zvobgo, Herbet Ushewokunze, Enos Nkala. These men, along with Sally, were his peers. They did not hold him in awe as does the current generation of puny politicians in ZANU PF. They subjected him to greater scrutiny and he did not like it very much. But some died too soon or fell out with Mugabe that their influence became marginal. Solomon Mujuru was the one peer who lasted longer and challenged him when it became clear that Mugabe was determined to stay in power forever. But he too met a mysterious end in August 2011, when a fire gutted his farmhouse. These peers could have constituted a key review panel and their collective absence, not just that of his first wife, has been a yawning gap that has allowed Mugabe to assume a sense of omnipotence among more junior politicians.

Had she lived longer …

It is, of course, impossible to speak with any measure of certainty as to whether the course of Zimbabwean history might have changed had the hand of death not been so quick to take her away. Perhaps because African culture generally frowns upon speaking ill of the dead, most views tend to imagine a brighter and more hopeful consequence had she lived longer. Also comparisons that condemn Mugabe’s current wife are often used to justify the view that things could have been better had Sally been around. However, as Noah Harari reminds us in Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, “history is not a means for making accurate predictions”. It cannot be predicted because history is chaotic. “So many forces are at work and their interactions are so complex that extremely small variations in the strength of forces and the way they interact produce huge differences in outcomes,” writes Harari. And he is right. It is a fallacious exercise to try to predict what course history might have taken had Sally lived longer. It assumes that all other things would have remained constant, which is not correct. She seemed to have a firm relationship with some members of the white farming community, who supported her children’s charities. Would she have prevailed on Mugabe to take a different approach to the land takeovers post-2000? She seemed to rely on British health system a lot on account of her medical condition. Would she have influenced her husband’s reaction to the British government in the dispute that emerged post 1997? We will never have definite answers to such questions precisely because history is unpredictable.

However, from what we know, it is not impossible to imagine what might have happened to her marriage and consequently how that might have affected Mugabe. Chung revealed in her book that Sally was ready to walk away and return to Ghana after discovering that Mugabe had taken on a second wife. There are indications that she was feeling ostracised and targeted by some of Mugabe’s inner circle and she thought her foreignness worked against her. Mugabe already had a child with his mistress. Would Sally have succumbed and accepted the appearance of a second wife? Mugabe would have had to keep Grace a secret, which he did until 1996, four years after Sally’s death when they got officially married. But would he have managed to keep Grace and the children a secret if Sally had lived longer? Would Grace have accepted to live in the shadows forever? How would Sally have taken the humiliation of the disclosure of her husband’s infidelity?

Many of the younger generation of Zimbabweans who are oblivious of this history only have an image of Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s major rival as a reckless philanderer with Mugabe cast as a morally upright man. The facts do not correspond with this false categorisation. Both Mugabe and his wife have even mocked Tsvangirai for this behaviour. They do so without any hint of irony that the origins of their own relationship are steeped in the same illicit tradition. They are hardly the couple that should claim the moral high ground when it comes to such matters – certainly not in Sally’s eyes.

Mugabe’s grief

Mugabe may have cheated on Sally but her death appears to have hit him extremely hard. The death can’t have been a surprise because Sally had been very ill for a long time. Mugabe had made reference to it in his letter to the British when he pleaded for her to be allowed to remain in Britain while he was in jail as a political prisoner. It was a health condition that prevented her from having more children after the death of Nhamo. Confidential records now at the National Archives shows that on 5 January 1982, the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wrote a letter to Mugabe, welcoming him to London where he had come to see Sally who had been taken ill and was getting treatment. “This is to welcome you to London and to say how very sorry I was to hear of your wife’s illness,” wrote Thatcher. “I do hope that you will find her in good heart and on the way to an early recovery.” Thatcher even offered help. “I hope that you will not hesitate to let me know if there is anything we can do to make your wife’ stay here more comfortable or if there is anything we can do for you during your brief visit”. That was a period when relations between Mugabe and the British authorities were still healthy and convivial. But implicit in this episode if the fact that not much has changed between then and now. The only difference is that nowadays, Mugabe takes his family to the Far East, where they get medical treatment. If relations with Britain had remained cordial, he would be going there for treatment.

Chung also reveals that Sally had been getting dialysis twice a week. So the death of Sally was not something that came without warning. By taking on a second wife during the terminal stages of her illness, Mugabe was already preparing for life after her demise. Yet still, when it did happen, it did hit him hard. In an article entitled “Day of the crocodile” acclaimed author Peter Godwin wrote in Vanity Fair magazine on 31 July 2008, “The mortician who embalmed Sally’s body told me that Mugabe visited the funeral parlor every day for nine days, until her state funeral, to sob over the open casket—a touching scene slightly curdled by the fact that Mugabe had already sired two children by one of his junior secretaries, Grace Marufu, 40 years his junior, whom he finally married in a lavish ceremony in 1996.” It casts an image of a man who grieved deeply at the loss of his wife, which suggests the years of marriage had not eroded his love, despite his illicit affair.

Other accounts show how he often attends at the Heroes Acre with flowers and that the commemorative sessions held annually show that the loss of Sally still affect him deeply.

“Sally’s prostitutes”

Like all people, Sally meant different things to different people. It would be revisionist to try to paint her as a saintly figure. She had her flaws and there are people she would have rubbed the wrong way. But if one’s life is an account of the good and the bad, it must reflect the assets and liabilities in the final balance sheet. Most people hold her in high regard, which suggests the asset end of her balance sheet outweighs the liabilities side.  No doubt one of her contemporaries who held her in high regard, Fay Chung has some kind words to say on her behalf. “She had a simple ambition,” says Chung. “She wanted every woman in Zimbabwe to be educated and to have a job. She realised that economic independence was of critical importance to women. Without it, women could not be free. She spent a lot of time trying to strengthen the women’s movement. In this area, she managed to win the unfailing support of poor women, particularly market women and peasant women. However, she was not able to win the support of many professional women.”

Of her charitable work, apart from children, two in particular stand out. She dedicated herself to assisting lepers and sex-workers. According to Chung, “there were some hundreds of former lepers who lacked housing, clothes, and food. Sally decided that it was her duty to provide them with a house, blankets, clothes, and food. After her death, she gave her clothes to the lepers, and it is possible today to see an old leper woman wearing the expensive coat that Sally used to wear.” In 1981, she became patron of Mutemwa Leprosy Centre in Mtoko. Her role helped in the right against social stigmatisation of lepers. She took them to her heart and made them feel loved where society frowned upon them and treated them like lesser humans. Sally’s work in that field was remarkable, showing her heart to look out for the marginalised, society’s outcasts.

Another was when she began to work with sex-workers who had converged in Marondera, a small town near Harare. She mobilised resources to build houses and find better work for the sex-workers. It became a major campaign. At one point Mugabe was asked about his wife’s work with the sex-workers. They were “Sally’s prostitutes,” he quipped in response, advising the inquisitor to direct his questions to Sally, who had more information about them.


We will never know how things might have turned out had Sally lived longer. It is hard if not impossible to predict history, because the variables are always are dynamic. The idea that Mugabe might have turned out differently merely reflects the wishes of a people rather than the course the history would have taken. The notion that she was a far stronger restraining influence on Mugabe is not supported by history. If one thing sticks out more than others, it is that between her and Grace, she has fared worse as victim of their husband’s personal pursuits. As great and amiable a personality as she was, she was, very sadly, unable to defend herself against her husband in the department of amorous activities. What could she have done to restrain Mugabe against others when she could not restrain him to protect herself?

What is certain, though, is that most Zimbabweans remember Sally with much fondness. This is not to say she was loved and admired by everyone, no. It is hard to find a human being who is universally loved, without exception. Even great heroes like Nelson Mandela have their critics. As this account has demonstrated, Sally went through complex experiences. She married a powerful man and most people might have imagined that she lived a glamourous and blissful life. But as this account shows, she ploughed a course that any other ordinary woman knows too well. She lost her young baby and had to bury her alone. She suffered the indignity of begging for sanctuary in a foreign land. She incurred an ailment that required her to depend on machines for nearly two decades of her life. She suffered the humiliation of her husband cavorting with a mistress, which, to add salt to an open wound, was blamed on her inability to give him a child and his mother a grandchild. This is the story of a great figure in our history, but it is also the story of every ordinary woman.

It tells us that beyond the façade of officialdom, at the end of the day, we are all ordinary. Behind the cloak of office, when the lights go out, we are all in the same bracket. The challenges of life are equal opportunity phenomena. Sally might have been called the First Lady of Zimbabwe, but at the end of the day, she was as vulnerable to patriarchy as any other woman. “She brought out the soft loving side of uncle Bob,” says Patricia Bekele in Heidi Holland’s book. She recounts how they would sit together around 5 each evening, watching the sun go down, as he drank tea and she ate her custard, sometimes sitting on the arm of his sofa, sometimes holding and exchanging kisses like a pair of naughty teenagers. She describes how he would wait by her dressing room calling her to come out so he could see her.

She was the one who spoke the most, she was more expressive, while Mugabe kept things inside – a tactic that he has used so well in his politics.  Once, says Bekele, he advised Sally not to reveal too much, but to keep it inside when engaging people. She tried but not always with her husband’s success. She was “one of few who could challenge Mugabe’s ideas without offending him,” she says and he valued her thoughts so much that he would even discuss his Cabinet reshuffles. “The Cabinet reshuffle was a serious event at home and he listened to everything she had to say,” says Bekele. If true, then maybe Mugabe has always given an ear to his wives and it did not begin with Grace who is often maligned for being too intrusive. The difference, one might say, is that Sally never publicly bragged about her power the way her successor does. But this is not a comparison of two women, one of whom clearly suffers the burden of the second wife or husband-snatcher label.

In death, Sally has managed to pull a great deal of people to her cause. But even in life she had the knack of bringing people together. Most Zimbabweans of an older generation will remember the mega-concert which she hosted in 1988. In her book, Here I am, highly-acclaimed South African musician PJ Powers remembers I so well. She describes how Sally Mugabe “apologised profusely” when she and her band were detained at Harare Airport after travelling for the fund-raising concert in support of Sally’s Child Survival and Development Foundation. The mega-concert brought a number of luminaries including Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Salif Keita, Maxi Priest and Manu Dibango. Zimbabwe has not had many of those and that surely must count as one of the great musical moments since independence.

But now it’ all memories. She was not perfect no, but I suppose it’s fair to say she was Ghana’s great gift to us.

One of the most conspicuous features one cannot miss when you take a tour of the National Heroes Acre is an empty grave next to Sally’s tomb. Perhaps the love birds who met and found love on the Atlantic coastline in Sekondi-Takoradi will once again be united when he finally crosses to the other side, as we are all destined to do at some point. Perhaps Sally will be waiting for him, just like she did for ten years while he was detained by Ian Smith. And then, maybe then, he will be hers again, but this time forever and without any rude and cruel interruption – not by colonial jailers or younger women.

May Sally’s soul rest in peace.