HARARE – “Politics is addictive,” says 58-year-old Joice Mujuru, and laughs loudly.
She would know, as she has been on the frontline of Zimbabwe’s rough politics since she was a teenager when she ran away from home to fight minority white rule.
“I never dreamed of being where I am now, today, not for one day did I dream of this. My ambition was to be a nurse. My father wanted me to be a policewoman.”
Mujuru rarely grants interviews although she has become less reclusive since her husband, Solomon Mujuru, whose nom de guerre in the 1970’s civil war was Rex Nhongo, died mysteriously in a fire at the family farm two years ago.
He was the only person in Zanu PF prepared to stand up to President Robert Mugabe.
She is steadfastly loyal to Mugabe, nor will she in any way criticise her party, Zanu PF.
And, like all her political colleagues, she blames long standing Western sanctions — which the Western governments prefer to call “restrictive measures” — that are narrowly targeted against some Zanu PF leaders and a few state companies, for Zimbabwe’s pitiful financial situation.
“We can’t get loans and have to sell our diamonds cheap,” she says.
Aside from all that, she shakes with laughter, regularly, and often at herself, and she is popular with many on the streets of Harare, where even though there is majority support for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, many hope she will succeed Mugabe if he retires ahead of the next elections in 2018.
A few steps beyond the security at the front of what was the colonial era prime minister’s office, now known as Munhumutapa Building, a small statue of David Livingstone still stands in a courtyard bright with early summer greenery.
This is where she and Mugabe have offices. Old, red carpets line corridors linking small offices where, beware, municipal water is turned off at 4.30 pm; and, the clock on the tower outside is permanently stuck at 3.15.
It is tough in the trenches right now for Mai Mujuru, as she is known, as she tries to win support in six out of 10 provinces ahead of Zanu PF’s annual conference next month.
Victory there would secure her place as senior vice president at the party’s congress next year, and then, some sigh, when he goes.
Her opponent in this race is her long-time opponent, Emmerson Mnangagwa, feared by many, who is presently Justice minister in Mugabe’s three-month-old government which is in deep financial trouble.
Mugabe was out of the country when we met in her office and so Mai Mujuru was also acting president for a week or so.
And, since her husband died, she has become one of Zimbabwe’s major commercial farmers and she is now also in the midst of the frantic planting time as the summer rains begin to fall, on schedule for a change.
The farm, Alamein, near Beatrice, which her late husband took, without payment, in the Zanu PF orchestrated land grab in 2001, is, she says, her refuge and her main business outside of her political obligations.
She would rather be at home on that farm than on holiday anywhere in the world, including Cape Town or China, she says with a grin.
She expanded operations massively since her husband died and now manages 12 000 laying hens, 25 000 broilers, beef cattle and a growing dairy herd, and she has planted 56 hectares of tobacco and 185 acres of maize this year. That is a lot of farming under any circumstances in Zimbabwe.
She has also spent a huge amount of money on three centre pivots to irrigate crops this season after rain dried up last year and her maize yield was a paltry 1,5 tonnes per hectare.
Joice is not her birth name. She assumed it at high school at the suggestion of teachers when a girl called Joice never turned up to claim her school place and so she took it.
Joice is spelled without a “y”.
“I don’t like that ‘y’, my name is Runaida, that is what I am called where I grew up,” she says.
“The teachers from the Salvation Army at school were white. I liked them and their Christian background and I learned quite a lot from them, discipline and hard work.”
In her second year of high school a close relative, who was quite well off was killed by a “freedom fighter”.
“Some of the freedom fighters were operating in our area, and they told our parents we want your children to come and help us. They told us we will be trained as nurses, and teachers. They told us that they will take us to the bus straight to Zambia and then to Europe.”
Most freedom fighters could not read or write so this was a good way of getting a better education.
“Even my father struggled to send me to school for two years and it was the Salvation Army which gave me education. My father said as he did not have a son at the time who could go to war, I should perform the duty.”
It was not so great at home either.
Joice was living more with her aunt than with her parents who had many children as her father, a master farmer, had two more wives in addition to Joice’s mother, his senior wife.
“I was a boarder and went home at Christmas and Easter and we had tea and bread; that was the only time we could get bread. I loved it.”
“At school it was this educational system bothering us … during my time … systems changed and I lost two years … and I was graded F2 which meant I did crafts. I had to force my aunt and my mum to find a way so that I got back into the normal stream at high school.”
So two years later at 18, enough was enough, and Joice decided to go to war and chose the nom de guerre Teurai which she believed meant pray.
A “comrade” on the bus en route to exile in Zambia said that it should be Teurai Ropa, which means Spill Blood.
So those friends, the majority of them, still call her Teurai.
There were only a handful of whites in her home area, Mount Darwin.
No sooner did she get to Zambia than she became ill with malaria and was sent to recover with Josiah Tongogara and his wife in Lusaka.
He was commander of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, Zanla. The war was intensifying. When she went for training she found she was as good as the men.
“I discovered fighting was in me. At the shooting ranges I found I was one of the best.”
She claims to have shot down a Rhodesian helicopter during the war and as one of the few women in Zanla, her future was assured and she married Rex Nhongo in Mozambique, with Mugabe’s permission.
At the end of the war, she was senior in the party to her husband and was a member of the general staff.
“I had a little education, there was a scarcity of women, so I was lucky and I was also brave.”
She was sent to Parliament while most of her comrades who were barely literate were sent to be trained by the British in the new Zimbabwe army, headed up by her husband.
She said she could speak little English when she went to Parliament and was appointed Sports minister.
She says she will never forget the moment Mugabe looked into her eyes and said: “Can you see a gun now? So if you were courageous enough to handle a gun be courageous enough to handle a book. Read, go to the office and read.”
Mugabe and others sent her books to study, Standard 7, ‘O’ level, a few novels.
Some whites taught her etiquette, and how to turn on a stove and answer a phone.
She had to deal with white Zimbabweans who immediately after independence wanted to continue to play sport with apartheid South Africa, and she had to block that.
“Free Zimbabwe will have nothing to do with South Africa,” she told them.
And then whites supported the Miss Zimbabwe competition.
“How can you parade our children half naked?” she protested, struggling with her English.
“Oh we had so many rows,” she says but adds that she slaughtered a bull for the white women’s hockey team after they won a gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Zanu PF instructed Mai Mujuru to surrender her parliamentary salary to the party, and said that she would be given enough food to feed her family.
She lived in a Zanu PF party house in a Harare which she shared with her “comrades”. After all, Mugabe had committed Zimbabwe to “socialism”.
Then she and her husband heard whispers. She was one of only two who were surrendering their salaries.
Friends and colleagues were buying houses, farms, going into business. Was this socialism?
“We then drifted towards a leadership code, not owning more than 50 acres of land. My husband said, ‘I as Rex Nhongo, I am not educated, and my wife is pregnant with our third child coming, I can only own a farm and do farming, I am going to look for a farm.’ And he got a bank loan for the first one.”
Rumour has it that Solomon Mujuru owned many more, but she says he did not.
“So we came to individual ownership after much debate. We couldn’t tell other politicians who already owned farms and businesses to give them up!”
And laughter rumbles through her as she recalls friends and comrades making excuses to buy property in the new Zimbabwe.
Later on her two children, born in Mozambique during the liberation war, would get their high school education in the UK courtesy of former Lonrho boss, Tiny Rowland.
“They went to St Annes. I did not have money to pay. I went to the UK for all the important events … aaaagh, but the weather was bad, and I was scared of the transport system. My skin used to go yellow after a month. I never went out of the house except to buy some food.”
The last few years have been tough for her, though she is now a wealthy woman, both in her own right and in her spousal inheritance.
First her two-year-old granddaughter drowned at a family home in Harare and then her husband died eight months later.
She doesn’t live in a government house, but in her own house in a smart Harare suburb, which she finds too large now.
“Being in politics has been a good living, yes, better than being a policeman or a nurse, but it has its own problems.
“Regarding ambition to be president, she says quite casually; “If the chance comes, then no one would refuse.”
“My husband never pushed me, not even a single day. At home if you saw me I was the traditional wife. I served his food to him not eye to eye, but on my knees. I washed his undies and socks.”
She does not concede that the inclusive government comprising Zanu PF and the two MDC parties, which came to power after violent elections in 2008, saved Zimbabwe.
She does not accept she was one of those who made it easier for the MDC to get along with what it had to do, getting schools and hospitals reopened, raising funds to help the country back on track after years of abuse from Zanu PF’s policies.
“You know what happened in that four to five years? They (MDC) discovered not all that glitters is gold. Being seen in a government car, in a luxurious office. They learned it is not good when you start talking bad about your own country.”
We did not even begin to discuss political abuse by Zanu PF from independence onwards as that would have ended the interview and we had agreed that this would be the start of a conversation, evidently her first with the South African press for as long as anyone can remember.