As a Zimbabwean military helicopter usually reserved for President Robert Mugabe arrived at a ruling party rally, out stepped his wife Grace into an election-campaign atmosphere.
While Zimbabwe isn’t due to hold its next vote for three years, Grace’s appearance at the Oct. 14 rally in the northeastern town of Rushinga and others around the country is building her brand as a serious contender to replace her 91-year-old husband when he eventually leaves office, after ruling since 1980.
“Grace Mugabe is certainly maneuvering to succeed her husband,” Robert Besseling, principal Africa analyst at IHS Country Risk, said by e-mail from Johannesburg on Oct. 19. “She is likely to be one of the very few people to be aware of her husband’s intentions and his health situation. Once Mugabe steps down or dies in office, Grace Mugabe will have the advantage of being able to act quickly to secure her succession.”
The state-controlled Herald newspaper described Grace Mugabe as a unifying force within the country, which is grappling with its worst economic crisis since 2008, when inflation soared to 500 billion percent. City residents experience power cuts on a near-daily basis, and 10 consecutive months of deflation have driven scores of manufacturers out of business. Industries ranging from platinum to tobacco are stagnating, while the United Nations is providing food aid to about 1.5 million people.
She is“connecting with the people and bringing a new approach that politicians don’t have to wait for elections,” the Harare-based newspaper said in an Oct. 16 editorial.
Known by her critics as the “First Shopper” and “Gucci Grace,” for what they say is her extravagant lifestyle, Grace Mugabe has built support among a group of senior ruling party officials known as Generation-40 because most of them are in their 40s and played no role in Zimbabwe’s war for independence. They include Local Government Minister Saviour Kasukuwere and Youth, Indigenization and Empowerment Minister Patrick Zhuwao.
Mugabe’s trips to Singapore for medical treatment have fueled speculation that he won’t serve out his term. Last month, he read the wrong speech in parliament without realizing he had delivered the same address a few weeks earlier.
Grace Mugabe, 50, worked as the president’s secretary before marrying him in 1996 and bearing him three children. She formally entered politics in December, when the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front elected her leader of its women’s league.
“Some say I want to be president,” she said at a rally last year. “Why not? Am I not Zimbabwean, too?”
Grace Mugabe has so far stood by her husband.
“I know that President Robert Mugabe is 91 years old, but he is the best leader we have,” she told the rally in Rushinga. “I am going to be learning from him.”
Her main adversary in a run for the top job is the vice president and deputy ruling party leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who previously served as state security and defense minister. Mnangagwa, 69, was appointed to his current post at the December congress, following the ousting of former Vice President Joice Mujuru, who Grace Mugabe accused of plotting to assassinate the president.
“Grace Mugabe cannot be ignored as a contender in the succession race,” said Anne Fruhauf, an Africa analyst at New York-based Teneo Intelligence. “Mnangagwa has not enjoyed universal backing in the past, even though the marginalization of the Mujuru circle has probably strengthened him.”
It was “pretty clear” Grace Mugabe has begun her presidential bid, with or without her husband’s blessing, said Temba Mliswa, Zanu-PF’s former chairman in the Mashonaland West province who was fired from the ruling party after being accused of supporting Mujuru.
“She’s openly using government infrastructure and equipment to campaign,” Mliswa told reporters in Bulawayo, the second-largest city, on Oct. 17.
In an February interview with the state broadcaster ZBC, Robert Mugabe denied grooming his wife for a career in politics.
Robert Mugabe probably won’t name a successor because doing so would weaken his credibility and turn him into a “lame duck president,” according to IHS’s Besseling.
“By not revealing his candidate of preference he remains completely in charge of Zanu-PF,” Besseling said. “That said, he is most likely to favor a succession in which his wife Grace Mugabe will retain a position of influence.”