What does Zimbabwe have in common with France? Why, revolution, of course … and bread. In 1792, French citizens became fed up with the excesses of their royal family headed by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. While they were looting the state’s coffers, the peasants were in the grip of a famine after harvest failures – in short, they had run out of bread. Emotions were running high when Queen Marie Antoinette proposed (allegedly) that they should think of eating cake.
Fast-forward to the present: Zimbabwe. From what was formerly known as Rhodesia (evil Cecil Rhodes), an independent country emerged with a young, energetic and fiercely anti-colonial Robert Mugabe at the helm. Shame on the British; this country belonged to the proud Shona – and rightly so. The ancient stone Zimbabwean Ruins, as this monument was known, served as inspiration for the new, poetic name. However, it was not long before a serpent in paradise revealed itself. Autocracy, bad governance and a spendthrift first lady depleted the former breadbasket of Africa.
When the peasants of France did not have enough bread, it became an issue. They staged an uprising known as the French Revolution. It did not take them too long – about a decade, in fact. But, in Zimbabwe, it took too long – 37 years. Whereas mother nature caused the failing French wheat harvests, father Mugabe was responsible for the shortage in Zim through chasing away those who produced the wheat.
Marie Antoinette, as she was known, was not French by birth. She was the pampered daughter of the Viennese empress, Maria Theresia. She was “handed over” to Louis XVI of France as a tender, bartered teenage bride, with the intent of consolidating the imperial interests of France and Austria. Of course, she was used to the best, and the state coffers of France were deep enough to indulge whatever luxury and fancy were the order of the day – be it residences, precious silk cloth or novel delicacies such as sugar, chocolate and oranges, not to mention diamond necklaces … Nothing was too far-fetched or precious, while the plebs and their grain harvests suffered.
Fast-forward to today. Here we are looking at a person called Grace Mugabe. She was born in Benoni, Gauteng, of Zimbabwean migrant parents. She went back to Zimbabwe to receive her basic schooling. Unlike Marie Antoinette, she knew what she was doing when she set her cap at the president, 40 years her senior. And, so, another power alliance came to pass. Although not to the manor born like the French queen, first lady Grace rapidly came to grips with the good life – a skill she seems to have handed down to her children, especially the younger sons. The state coffers were also deep enough to indulge every fancy, from designer clothes, diamonds and champagne to billions in offshore accounts, and multiple residences, including a marble palace on the African steppe.
What else may Marie Antoinette and Grace have in common? When the hordes turned up at the palace gates, Marie Antoinette probably cried “m…e”, although she came from the aristocracy. It is highly likely that Grace would have said “k…k”. This word has become known in South African parlance as a swear word, and it is generally believed to have derived from the Afrikaans word for excrement. But, if one goes back further to ancient Greek etymology, one will find that there is such a word as kakistocracy. It means “bad government”.
What a chilling coincidence … Unlike Marie Antoinette, Grace will, hopefully (for her), keep her head and use it to reflect on her many misdemeanours. Perhaps she may also find the time to teach her children civilised behaviour – although it is somewhat late in the day.