HARARE — She has expensive tastes, owns a lot of land in Zimbabwe and is now entering politics, a move that is roiling this Southern African country that has known only one leader since independence: President Robert Mugabe, who is 90 years old.
The newcomer is Mugabe’s 49-year-old wife Grace, who accepted a nomination last month to lead the ruling party women’s wing, triggering accusations that Mugabe aims to set a political dynasty in place. Her nomination has already caused infighting in the Zanu PF ruling party, with some claiming they’ve been intimidated.
The Zanu PF Women’s League said they hoped Grace Mugabe could advance women’s issues and help heal factionalism because she has “the president’s ear”.
But, like her husband, she has a knack for giving speeches with fiery and hostile language.
In July, during her acceptance speech for the Zanu PF post, she all but threatened the deputy Justice minister and Parliament member Fortune Chasi who, she said, had frustrated her efforts to acquire more land and a conservancy near her farm that is an animal sanctuary with gold reserves, where some villagers now live and pan for gold.
“I might have a small fist, but when it comes to fighting I will put stones inside to enlarge it, or even put on gloves to make it bigger. Do not doubt my capabilities,” Grace told thousands of women who were bussed from across the country to her farm in the Mazowe area north-west of Harare.
Mugabe, who has ruled since 1980 and won re-election in a disputed poll in July 2013, has already accepted a proposal by the women’s wing to be the party’s candidate for the 2018 election. He will be 94 by then. Politicians have been jockeying for position to succeed him.
Once a secretary in Mugabe’s office, Grace rose to prominence after news broke that she had a child with Mugabe while his first wife, Sally, lay bedridden due to a kidney ailment. Sally, a Ghanaian, died in 1992 from kidney failure. Mugabe has since said Sally knew and approved of Grace since they were childless and he wanted children.
After a Catholic wedding in 1996, Grace made headlines for alleged expensive shopping trips, a fiery temper and the acquisition of huge tracts of land under Mugabe’s controversial land reform programme. The couple has three children, and Grace has a son from an earlier marriage to a retired air force officer.
She joined Mugabe on the political campaign trail in 2008 after he lost the first round of voting to opposition leader and main rival Morgan Tsvangirai. Mugabe won the subsequent runoff.
Last year during the election campaign she attracted attention for comments such as describing Tsvangirai as ugly.
Rival factions have recently begun openly attacked each other’s credentials.
Vice-President Joice Mujuru and Justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa — both veterans of the country’s 1970s liberation war — have been long-time front runners to replace Mugabe.
A member of the Zanu PF Youth League from Harare lodged a police report over the weekend, alleging he had been assaulted by fellow party members for backing Grace. On Monday, Mugabe’s close nephew and Zanu PF politician Patrick Zhuwawo claimed there was a plot to “push” Grace from Harare by disgruntled party members who want to “relegate the First Family to the Zvimba (Mugabe’s home village)”.
Other youth league members claim they are being targeted.
Godfrey Gomwe told the State-run Herald newspaper that soon after a provincial youth committee which he led endorsed Grace, his committee was slapped with a no-confidence vote by higher-ups.
Such “turf fights” are normal ahead of party leadership congresses and the “fuss” about Grace will not affect party cohesion, said Zanu PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo.
“This phase will pass after the congress,” he said, referring to a December congress in which the president will have the final word on his wife’s appointment as women’s league secretary of Zanu PF.
Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe, believes Grace lacks the experience to be head of the Zanu PF women’s league, much less for the presidency, if that ever becomes her aim.
“Her entry into politics is part and parcel of her desire to protect her interests,” Masunungure said.
At a public debate at a Harare hotel on Thursday night, a Zanu-PF panellist, Goodson Nguni, defended Grace’s entry into politics after several people accused Mugabe of creating a dynasty.
“It is our right as Zanu PF to choose President Mugabe to lead the country and the First Lady to lead the women’s league,” Nguni said.
Human rights advocate Gabriel Shumba complained that the ruling party seems more concerned with succession than fixing the economy.
Zimbabwe has severe economic problems. The government has cut economic growth forecasts for 2014 by half to 3,1% while the World Bank predicts economic growth of only 2%. Hundreds of companies have closed in the past year.
Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans have fled economic hardships in recent years, settling mainly in former colonial power Britain and neighbouring South Africa.