Many Zimbabweans fear a continuation of the Mugabe dynasty, especially in the form of the president’s scandal-prone wife.
Ibbo Mandaza remembers the first time he saw Grace Marufu: “She was very beautiful, pretty braids, sitting at the switchboard at State House.” But one day, a presidential official warned him not to flirt with the secretarial staff, and he wondered why. Then, in 1989, he noticed that Grace was pregnant. “And it clicked.”
The father of Marufu’s child was Robert Mugabe, leader of Zimbabwe and a married man. A second child would follow with the president’s mistress even as his wife, Sally, fell terminally ill. “Bob was moving between the maternity ward and Sally’s ICU unit,” recalled Mandaza, a former civil servant.
When Grace Mugabe fulfilled her dream of rising from secretary to first lady by marrying the man four decades her senior, that appeared to be the limit of her ambition. It was not. she is tipped to be named by 90-year-old Robert Mugabe as his vice-president and heir apparent – a political earthquake that six months ago seemed unthinkable.
The manoeuvre comes with Africa’s oldest leader looking frail and frequently dozing off during meetings of the Zanu-PF party politburo, according to one regular attender.
After 34 years of Robert Mugabe’s iron rule, the battle for succession is on, pitting comrade against comrade, faction against faction. It is an endgame played out in an atmosphere seething with conspiracy, treachery, paranoia, recrimination, backstabbing and wild allegations of a plot to assassinate the president. The party that has dominated Zimbabwe since independence is in disarray.
Many here are horrified by the prospect of a continuation of the Mugabe dynasty, especially in the form of Grace. Some have never forgiven her or Robert Mugabe for the extramarital affair conducted when the popular Sally was alive (Grace was also married at the time). For years she has been dubbed DisGrace, Gucci Grace and First Shopper because of her penchant for extravagant spending sprees – she allegedly blew $120,000 on one trip to Paris – even as the economy tanked, with an estimated four in five people living below the poverty line.
She also accumulated property, including a lucrative dairy business and several farms, and founded an orphanage, but the notion of President Mugabe Mk II seemed absurd. Then, on her 49th birthday in July, she entered politics like a bolt from the blue and, despite no experience, she was nominated as head of the Zanu-PF women’s league. She also gained a sociology PhD from the University of Zimbabwe in just three months in what critics saw as a desperate push for gravitas. She was ceremonially capped by her husband and mercilessly mocked by academics.
“Then suddenly people see her for three hours a day on state television and it’s: ‘Wow, who is this woman? Stop it!’ She was uncouth, unbecoming. People were saying this woman comes from a mining compound because some finesse is expected. The debate was to what extent she was her own person or a missile sent by her husband. I think both.”
The potential for Zimbabwe’s first female president, and only the fourth in Africa, does not necessarily inspire women. One Zimbabwean woman, who did not wish to be named, said: “I think she’s quite toxic. She comes across as vapid and totally uncouth without a bit of finesse about her. She’s got no political nous at all. Robert Mugabe has been successful because he keeps his enemies close to him; she throws them out.”
Grace Mugabe’s blunt style also contrasts with the president’s polished manners, often compared to those of a Victorian gentleman from the old colonial power, Britain. In 2009, she punched a British photographer in Hong Kong for taking pictures of her at a luxury hotel. This year, when the couple’s daughter Bona got married, people working at the wedding were “appalled” by Grace Mugabe’s imperious behaviour, a source said.
And yet it is possible that she will win. “President Grace Mugabe is not only possible, she is likely,” predicted Makoni, now leader of one of several opposition parties struggling for relevance. “But she is worse news than Robert Mugabe because at least he has the intellectual capacity to comprehend things and disregard them. Grace has no capacity so she will be very mechanised.”
This week Robert Mugabe described Mujuru, his vice-president of a decade, as too simplistic. Makoni said: “If Mujuru is simplistic then Grace is dumb. This is why it saddens me so much. For a nation of bright, educated, skilled people, why would someone like Grace Mugabe rise to be a leader at any level? Robert Mugabe doesn’t brook any opposition.”
Her unstuffy approach has some traction among the electorate, according to Vince Musewe, an economist and political commentator. “She understands the target market and uses the popular language,” he said. “She’s called First Shopper’ but who doesn’t want that? All the chicks in Zim want to be that. It’s aspirational but it’s warped aspiration.”
It seems anyone who tries to stand in the first lady’s way will be crushed. Mujuru, 59, has been accused of plotting to assassinate the president and use witchcraft to overthrow him. She has not dared set foot at this week’s Zanu-PF congress in Harare, where a new service road is named Dr Grace Mugabe Way. She has been eviscerated almost daily by the state-controlled Herald newspaper, where Zanu-PF’s spin doctor, Jonathan Moyo, is said to sit churning out bilious copy late into the night.
Few others dare challenge Robert Mugabe because of his control over the military and security apparatus as well as tangled webs of patronage linked to Zimbabwe’s precious minerals. Perhaps the biggest mystery is what it all means for the justice minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa, 76, dubbed “the crocodile”, a longtime rival of Mujuru in the succession stakes.
There are fears that the rise and rise of Grace Mugabe will split the ruling party irrevocably and, when Robert Mugabe finally dies, a Pandora’s box will open for everyone. Ibbo Mandaza warned: “Things will fall apart, that’s for sure. Robert Mugabe has sown the seeds of serious divisions in the party and country. The Zimbabwean state is very strong but very brittle. It can crack at any time. And when it cracks, God forbid.”