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Updated 20 June 2003
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Hanging out with Zim's first shopper


Mugabe builds £6 million palace

Mugabe's Swiss luxury

By Claire Donnelly
20/06/03
AT HOME in Zimbabwe more than seven million of her people are starving. But as Robert Mugabe's wife Grace strolled around the most exclusive boutiques in Paris recently, the plight of the hungry and dying was the last thing on her mind.

Hiding behind £180 Christian Dior sunglasses and with a £25,000 diamond-encrusted Rolex hanging off her wrist, the First Lady of Zimbabwe spent a day doing what she does best - shopping.

After a £150-a-head dinner she and her husband retired to their £10,000-a-night, 33-room suite at the Plaza-Athenee, while back home families queued for meagre supplies of bread and cooking oil.
Grace, who at 39 is 40 years younger than her husband, has come to represent everything that is wrong with Mugabe's tyrannical regime.

Southern Africa's answer to Imelda Marcos, she is known in Zimbabwe as The First Shopper, a woman who has spent millions on foreign shopping trips, a sprawling home dubbed

Gracelands and a jet once owned by Playboy tycoon Hugh Hefner.

Asked recently how she justified travelling to Europe to spend thousands on Ferragamo shoes while her people starved, she replied simply: "I have very narrow feet, so I wear only Ferragamo."

Her words speak volumes about a country where nepotism and corruption are obliterating what was once a thriving economy.

Grace is happy to enforce her husband's land reform policy for her own gain - she seized a farm after throwing out its elderly white residents last year - and her influence on him is legendary.

Zimbabweans inside and outside the regime blame Grace, a former secretary of her husband, for encouraging his extreme views. They claim he has been under her spell since the couple began an affair while they were both married.

Grace was then in her early 20s and the mother of a young child. But she was happy to jettison her family for a life of comfort with Mugabe.

Experts believe the president is lost without the stabilising influence of his late, first wife
Sally, a Ghanaian intellectual and social thinker, and will do anything to please his demanding young wife.

Robert Rotberg, an expert in Zimbabwean politics, said: "Everyone, including those close to Mugabe, claim Grace has changed his character.

"His priorities have changed. He has a family now. He is establishing a dynasty."
Mr Rotberg, who teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said Grace had made Mugabe dangerous since the death of Sally, who was married to him for 30 years.

He added: "Sally was a strong, intellectual woman, who stood by his side throughout years of struggle. She was a brake on him, his super-ego. No one else could tell him, 'No, don't be stupid'."

One former civil servant, too scared to be named, said: "As far back as 1992 Mugabe was talking about retirement. Within government, people were preparing for a changeover. All that changed when Grace came on the scene.

"Eventually, he announced he was going to stay on. A lot of people think it was Grace's doing." Another aide added: "He is utterly obsessed with this woman and cannot make the most simple decision unless she gives the go-ahead."

Mugabe, now 79, met Grace Marufu when she began working for him as a junior secretary and he was still married to Sally.

They quickly began an affair which was hidden from the general public even when the couple had two children, the eldest of whom is now 15.

When Sally died of kidney failure in 1992, Mugabe, a practising Catholic, was free to remarry. A third child was born in 1997.

No one knows what happened to Grace's first husband or her first child.

But after being granted special dispensation from the church, the couple married in 1996, in the lavish style that was to become their trademark.

Grace began regularly commandeering jets from state airline Air Zimbabwe to ferry her around the world on spending sprees, tearing out seats on return flights to accommodate the spoils of her trip. They are thought to have spent £200million on jet fuel.

In London, Grace would insist on taking over a suite at the exclusive Claridge's Hotel. Bodyguards in tow, she would cruise through Harrods before piling her purchases into her chauffeur-driven Mercedes.

On one of her London shopping sprees Grace spent £40,000 in an afternoon. At home the spending was just as spectacular.

Before the couple were married, Grace was embroiled in controversy after using £500,000 of government funds to build a 30-bedroom mansion in the capital Harare. She named it Gracelands, in honour of herself and her hero Elvis Presley.

The High Court ruled the loans taken out on the property were illegal but when Grace sold the mansion to the Libyan Government for £3million in 2000, she kept the profits.
Welshman Ncube, a prominent lawyer, said at the time: "They want to make millions out of this - and the country can go to hell. There is no longer any shame."

A year after Gracelands was sold, Grace demanded that her husband start work on a new £6million mansion outside Harare. And she went on a spending spree to kit it out.
The three-storey home was fitted with imported Italian sunken baths and oriental rugs. It also had a swimming pool.

As a family friend said: "Mugabe has spent a lot of time having to restrain his wife from buying more and more luxury fittings."

Before sanctions were enforced against Zimbabwe last year, Mugabe planned to buy his wife an equally spectacular residence - a Scottish castle where the pair could enjoy cosy winter breaks. Already the owner of five farms, at Christmas Grace helped herself to another chunk of land.

This time she took an active part in the land reclamation policy that has plunged Zimbabwe into crisis and snatched an elderly white couple's farm.
Sweeping into the Iron Mark Estate, north of Harare - in a convoy of black limousines - she told owners John and Eva Matthews "I'm taking over".

John, 78, and his 74-year-old wife had 48 hours to pack and get out of the 2,500-acre farm they had built up over 25 years. Sent to a Harare flat, they had no choice but to leave everything and go to live with their daughter in South Africa.
Black employees who asked what they should do were met with a harsh response as Grace barked: "Go and live by the river."

While most farms in the area are relatively simple whitewashed brick buildings, Iron Mark was known for being a sophisticated, well-cared for homestead.

Along with the land, Grace, who has no official income of her own, took over the Matthews' two-storey mansion, boasting five bedrooms, several bathrooms, a library, billiard room, cold rooms and a silver room, two swimming pools and two cottages.
While an estimated half of the Zimbabwean population goes hungry, the farm has been uncared for since Grace's heavies moved in.

Across the country, Mugabe's land reforms have left 350,000 farm workers unemployed.
Meanwhile Grace has continued to live it up. Travel bans on the Zimbabwean elite by the European Union and American government, introduced in July last year, were meant to limit their movements, only allowing access to the Far East.

A month later the Bank of England was told to freeze Mugabe's assets. Despite his high-flying lifestyle, he only has an official income of £30,000.

Speaking at the time, Labour MEP Glenys Kinnock predicted: "This will stop Grace Mugabe going on her shopping trips in the face of catastrophic poverty blighting the people of Zimbabwe."
Sadly, it didn't.

In January, she was photographed with her husband, half a dozen minders and 15 trolley-loads of goods in the first-class lounge at Singapore international airport.
And, as the obscene Paris trip proved, as long as the Mugabe circus can still roll into town, grasping Grace will carry on getting exactly what she wants - Daily Mirror (UK)
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