The forgotten first Ghanaian wife of Robert Mugabe whose painful death in 1992 changed Zimbabwe forever

Michael Eli Dokosi September 09, 2019
Robert Mugabe with Sally Mugabe. Photo credit:

On September 6, Robert Gabriel Mugabe passed away aged 95 after being ousted from power by his own party men. On November 19, 2017, ZANU-PF removed Mugabe as party leader, replacing him with Mnangagwa and issuing a deadline on November 20 for Mugabe to resign the presidency or face impeachment.

Mugabe, tough as nails as always, was ready to ride the storm till a joint session of parliament met ahead of his impeachment and sent his resignation letter on November 21, 2017.

Being advanced in age, Mugabe had been in and out of hospitals in South Africa and Singapore, eventually dying on a hospital bed in Singapore.

The forgotten first Ghanaian wife of Robert Mugabe whose painful death in 1992 changed Zimbabwe forever
Robert with Sally in happier times.

As expected of a man who riled the British by redistributing land and farms appropriated by white owners back to black locals in the year 2000 onwards, Mugabe is vilely portrayed in the western media.

He could have also handed over the reins of government given his advanced age, and better managed the economy, as well as, build more critical infrastructure.

Nevertheless, the man who spoke eloquently and dressed sharply, and who abstained from liquor, coffee and largely vegetarian, is praised for increased school enrollment and expanded health care for citizens.

But how did it all begin for Robert Gabriel Mugabe – career, love and politics wise?

The forgotten first Ghanaian wife of Robert Mugabe whose painful death in 1992 changed Zimbabwe forever
Sally Mugabe via

Mugabe hailed from Kutama village and set out to be a teacher. In 1958, he went to work in Ghana then the Gold Coast at the Takoradi Teacher Training College where he taught and initiated a love union with Sally Francesca Hayfron.

She was then also teaching at the school, having attained her teaching certificate from the St Mary’s Trainer Coaching Faculty in Takoradi. The pair shared a fondness for Kwame Nkrumah’s speeches, having led Ghana to independence in 1957.

Sarah would follow Mugabe to Southern Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then known) where the pair married in April 1961 in Salisbury. Two years after their marriage, the pair birthed Nhamodzenyika (Shona for The Troubles of my Country) but their joy was short-lived when he died of a cerebral malaria attack in Ghana aged 3.

Sarah, also called Sally, was born on June 6, 1931. She was a product of Achimota Secondary School, emerging the first wife of Robert Mugabe and the First Lady of Zimbabwe from 1987 until her death in 1992 aged 60. She was popularly known as Amai (Mother) in Zimbabwe.

The forgotten first Ghanaian wife of Robert Mugabe whose painful death in 1992 changed Zimbabwe forever
Sarah ‘Sally’ Mugabe via

Although Sarah Francesca (Hayfron) Mugabe was a trained teacher, she was also a political activist and campaigner, putting her activism to deadly effect against the white minority rule when she mobilised African women to challenge the Southern Rhodesian constitution in 1962.

The Ian Smith government charged her with sedition and sentenced her to five years imprisonment although part of the sentence was suspended.

In 1967, Sally went into exile in London and resided in Ealing Broadway, West London. Her stay in Britain was partly financed by the British Ariel Foundation; a charity founded in 1960. It had close links to the British government which saw higher education in Britain as a means of influencing the next generation of African leaders.

With her husband behind bars and son dead, Sally sought exile where she worked for the Africa Centre until her visa expired in 1970. The British Home Office had intended to deport Sally, but multiple letters from Mugabe to British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as, a petition signed by at least 400 MPs, eventually persuaded the authorities to allow her to stay.

She spent the next eight years agitating and campaigning for the release of political detainees in Rhodesia, including her husband who had been arrested in 1964 and was to remain incarcerated for ten years.

Mugabe had been sent to prison in 1964 for calling for Zimbabwe’s independence, taking nearly 11 years before being released in 1974. With time on his hand, Mugabe continued with his education, earning two law degrees from the University of London External Programme.

With Mugabe’s release in 1975 and subsequent departure for Mozambique with Edgar Tekere, Sally rejoined her husband in Maputo. Here, she cast herself in the new role of a mother figure to the thousands of refugees created by the Rhodesian Bush War. This earned her the popular title Amai (Mother).

In 1978, she was elected ZANU-PF Deputy Secretary for the Women’s League. In 1980, she had to make a quick adjustment to a new and national role of the wife of Zimbabwe’s first black Prime Minister as Zimbabwe had gained independence in the year.

She officially became the First Lady of Zimbabwe in 1987 when her husband became the second president of Zimbabwe. She was elected Secretary-General of the ZANU-PF Women’s League at the party’s Congress of 1989.

She also founded the Zimbabwe Child Survival Movement. Sally launched the Zimbabwe Women’s Cooperative in the UK in 1986 and supported Akina Mama wa Afrika, a London-based African women’s organisation focusing on development and women’s issues in Africa and the United Kingdom.

Sally died on January 27, 1992, from kidney failure. Upon her death, she was interred at the National Heroes Acre in Harare, Zimbabwe. In 2002, to mark the 10th anniversary of her death, Zimbabwe issued a set of five postage stamps, of a common design, using two different photographs, each photograph appearing on two of the denominations.

She is remembered fondly with love and affection, as she is still considered the founding mother of the nation of Zimbabwe. Perhaps it is her modest living, her efforts to bring some comfort to the deprived or better still her ability to point out other options her husband might have neglected to see which endeared her to so many Zim citizens.

The forgotten first Ghanaian wife of Robert Mugabe whose painful death in 1992 changed Zimbabwe forever
Mugabe with current Zim president Mnangagwa during the battle days. Photo credit:

Although Sally didn’t hail from Zimbabwe, she is respected and loved by Zimbabweans unlike Grace Mugabe, Mugabe’s secretary turned lover and second wife. Grace is described by some as a gold digger and one who turned Mugabe from the calm, reasonable and well-intentioned gentleman and leader he was till she came into the picture.

Reports suggest that Sally’s marriage to Mugabe began to falter when they found out they could not have any more children. Mugabe insisted Sally was aware of his relationship with Grace citing a need to have children, having lost a boy Sally gave him and a need to give his mother grandchildren.

Many Zimbabweans trace the reversal of Mugabe and the nation’s fortunes to his 1996 wedding of Grace Marufu, 41 years his junior, following the death of his widely respected first wife, Sally, in 1992.

If ever in doubt about Sally’s calming effect on the prime minister and president, this quote might make things clearer.

“He changed the moment Sally died, when he married a young gold-digger,” said Wilf Mbanga, editor of The Zimbabwean newspaper and one-time personal friends with Mugabe.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 9, 2019


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