Honorary doctorate for Zimbabwe’s first lady criticised

Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa has presented his wife, Auxillia, with an honorary doctorate for her contribution to charitable work in the country – a development criticised by academics.

Mnangagwa, the chancellor of all state-run institutions of higher learning in Zimbabwe, followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, Robert Mugabe, who capped his wife, Grace, at the University of Zimbabwe. The vice-chancellor of the institution was later prosecuted for allegedly favouring the former first lady.

Auxillia Mnangagwa was honoured on 7 December 2022 with an honorary doctorate degree in development studies by the Zimbabwe Open University (ZOU) in recognition of her “philanthropist activities”.

Mnangagwa presented the first lady’s doctorate degree to the Minister of Women Affairs, Community, and Small and Medium Enterprises Development, Sithembiso Gladys Nyoni, as his wife was in Russia where another institution also awarded her with an honorary PhD in recognition of her “charity work”.

In a statement, the ministry of information said Zimbabwe’s first lady was working to uplift marginalised communities in Zimbabwe, hence the recognition. The president’s wife runs the Angel of Hope Foundation, receiving contributions in cash and kind from organisations. This is allegedly then distributed in her name with no mention of the contributors.

Awards a strategic move?

Taxpayers’ funds are used and carefully selected state media reporters cover the first lady’s charity events. Stories and pictures from the events are published only after she approves the content to project an image of a hard-working first lady. State media editors are not allowed to edit her stories once she has approved them.

Angel of Hope has also been touted as a ‘partner’ to international charity organisations coming to Zimbabwe to carry out charity work such as free healthcare services by American doctors, thus raising her profile.

ZOU Vice-Chancellor Paul Gundani told those gathered at the graduation ceremony that First Lady Mnangagwa had been honoured because of her “efforts to improve the standard of living in disadvantaged communities through philanthropic work”.

Zimbabwean academic Dr Takavafira Zhou said no credible university can confer the first lady with an honorary degree.

“I certainly have no challenges in the conferment of any degree that resonates with the work ethic of an individual to attract attention to the university. But I have not seen any work from the first lady to attract conferment of a PhD from a credible university. Perhaps the university is seeking favours from the first family, more so because the president is the chancellor of all state universities,” Zhou said.

Earlier this year, the first lady also received an honorary degree from a university in India. The private GD Goenka University of India awarded her a Doctor of Philosophy degree, and the Vernadsky Crimean Federal University in Russia gave her a gold medal in recognition of her contribution to the education sector in Zimbabwe through her Angel of Hope Foundation.

Zhou said foreign countries and institutions could be involved in an indirect way in strategically positioning themselves to access Zimbabwe’s mineral wealth through some connections with the first family.

First ladies crave publicity

“It is puzzling that Auxillia Mnangagwa is receiving such honorary degrees from universities abroad and locally for work that those in the education sector cannot quantify as worthy of such an award. It would seem that the universities in Russia, India, and Zimbabwe are angling for something else other than merely rewarding the first lady with degrees worthy of her work ethic. One may surmise that Russia, India, and Open University are angling for favours from the president through honorary awards to the first lady,” said Zhou.

He said there is certainly a difference between Grace Mugabe and Auxillia Mnangagwa. Auxillia Mnangagwa is receiving these awards as honorary awards, whereas Grace Mugabe wanted to give the impression that she had worked for a PhD. “Auxillia is smarter than Grace Mugabe, although both seem to be similar in their drive for publicity as first ladies.”

The conferment of a degree to Grace Mugabe was challenged in court after reports emerged that she did not defend her thesis and did not spend enough time in completing a doctorate.

Months after coming to power after the overthrow of Mugabe’s regime in November 2017, Mnangagwa suspended University of Zimbabwe vice-chancellor Professor Levi Nyagura for allegedly “corruptly” awarding Grace Mugabe a Doctor of Philosophy degree in 2014. The vice-chancellor was then prosecuted for awarding Grace Mugabe the PhD without the approval of the University of Zimbabwe’s senate and council, as stipulated by regulations.

Since 2014, there had been claims that Grace Mugabe’s doctorate was fake, but no action was taken while her husband was in power, up until when he was forced to resign as Zimbabwean president. Mugabe was replaced by his former deputy, Mnangagwa.

A political analyst recently told The Africa Report that receiving honorary degrees was a trend among African first ladies.

“I also find the conferment of degrees interesting. Not unique to her or Grace, but quite a trend with African first ladies to legitimise titles. Also, [it is for] charity work that is heavily government-sponsored,” Chipo Dendere, a Zimbabwean political analyst based in the United States was quoted by The Africa Report as saying.