Grace Mugabe: A successor to her husband?

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AN old colleague in the political trenches used to share an anecdote from the time he worked for the state media in the late eighties and early nineties. As part of his mandate, he would, from time to time, be among President Mugabe’s travelling party whenever he went away on his numerous trips abroad. As usual, the large party travelled on a chartered Air Zimbabwe flight.
On a few of those occasions, they had begun to notice a young woman among their number. She stood out on account of her beautiful looks. But she was also shy and reserved, and kept mostly to herself. On one flight, after a few drinks, which may have fuelled some courage, a chap walked over and occupied a seat next to the pretty young lady, probably fancying his chances.
After a short while, another gentleman came over and whispered something into the chap’s ear. The chap quickly gathered himself and retreated to the back of the plane, where he sat quietly for the rest of the flight. Later, when the others asked why he had beaten a hasty retreat, the chap was still cursing himself for his act of foolishness. Apparently, he had strayed into forbidden territory. That delightful young lady, it turned out, was Grace Marufu, later to become Grace Mugabe and First Lady of the nation by circumstance of marriage to the most powerful man in Zimbabwe.
But at the time, her status was in the closet. Her future husband was still married to Sally, his first wife, whom he had met in Ghana, where his teaching trade had taken him to a town called Sekondi-Takoradi in the late fifties. But Sally was ailing from kidney disease. She died in 1992. And four years later, Grace and Mugabe became official at a well-appointed wedding ceremony where Mozambique President Joachim Chissano was the best man.
Just over two decades later, the pretty, but coy and reserved young lady, has become probably the most powerful and most vocal woman in Zimbabwean politics. She is now Amai Mugabe, hailed by her supporters as ‘Mother of the Nation’. Her looks have resisted the passage of time but the demure character is long gone and in its place is a feisty, blunt and combative political gladiator. And already, she is being touted in some circles as a potential successor to her husband, who at 91, is in the late evening of his long and controversial political career.Advertisement

I don’t know if there is any truth to the colleague’s dramatic anecdote, but Grace Mugabe’s has truly been a remarkable journey, from the typing pool to the most powerful woman in the land. In his old age, she has shown unflinching and admirable loyalty to her husband, hand-holding him at most public occasions these day, to mitigate the risk of imbalance that often attends upon ageing bodies.
These days, Grace Mugabe has also discovered power of the kind that comes from having intimate proximity to the most powerful person in the land.  Last year, at the Zanu PF Congress, after Mugabe had rumbled on during his speech, he was handed a small hand-written note. He paused for a brief moment to read it, before announcing to the conference that his wife had instructed him that it was time to stop. “Mukadzi uyu arikundinyorera kuti ndataurisa. Ndozvandinoitwa kumba imi woye! Saka ndoteerera” (My wife has told me that I have spoken too much and I should stop. That’s how it is even at home, so I have to obey the instruction!)
Mugabe retains a rich sense of humour and the words may have been uttered in jest, but it was a poignant moment, which, to most observers, symbolised Grace’s growing influence and certainly her hand-holding role. In the past, she would not have given such an instruction to Mugabe. But, as his years advance, she is taking on the role of guardian and protector.
She wasn’t always as assertive or cocky in public. Often, she sat quietly in the background, content to play a supporting role in the shadows of her powerful husband. She knew better than to take the shine ahead of her husband. But there, in the background, an unhealthy reputation grew, that of a simple-minded young wife content with life in expensive boutiques specialising in the art of shopping. Even then, she did not fight back. She preferred to carry on with her life, disdainful of critics and their criticism.
Others even blamed her, perhaps unfairly it has to be said, for her husband’s prolonged and increasingly controversial stay in power. The charge was that but for her, Mugabe would have long retired. Critics said it was the young wife who encouraged him to cling on to power. I suspect those critics overestimated her influence and underestimated the depth of Mugabe’s own ambition and will to remain in charge. But she carried the burden.
Last year, though, the Grace of designer labels gave way to a more combative and haughty Grace of the political terrain. First, a political path opened with a well-choreographed nomination to head the party’s Women’s League – the influential women’s wing of the party. Everything that played out from her Mazoe Farm was pre-arranged and in accordance with the script.
And then, to silence any charge of shallow-mindedness, the scene was prepared for her to be awarded a PhD degree from the University of Zimbabwe. It was controversial and most people dismissed it as a dubious award.
Then, in the months leading up to the party’s Congress in December 2014, she led a campaign that resulted in the inglorious ouster of the country’s Vice President, Joice Mujuru. After that, people could not afford to ignore her. She had flexed her political muscle in a manner that had not been seen before. Mujuru’s collapse had many casualties, with long-standing party veterans like Didymus Mutasa and Rugare Gumbo falling by the wayside.
As Mujuru fell out of the race to succeed Mugabe in Zanu PF, Grace began to be touted as a potential successor, although even then that seemed far-fetched. Her political stock had risen. But then illness took hold and, for a while, she retreated from the frontline. She spent the early months of the year ensconced in the Far East, where she sought and found medical treatment. Rumours went around during her prolonged absence, as they often do in Harare, some even suggesting that her illness was one of a terminal nature.
But then she returned, frail but able. The party faithful were there at the airport, to welcome her, dancing and singing in party regalia. She told them she had been unwell, but that the Good Lord had intervened and granted her mercy. She told them she had found medical help from experts in the Far East – the irony that she was telling all this to people whose local medical facilities are in an appalling shape seemed lost on her.
In more recent months, she has been vocal and active again on the political scene. Eyebrows were raised when she claimed at a public rally that the country’s two Vice Presidents often consulted with her on important issues and that they brought notebooks to take notes when she spoke to them. It gave the impression of two senior politicians who took instructions from an unelected First Lady. It was interpreted as another demonstration of the First Lady’s growing power and influence in governmental affairs.
But the question as to whether she is pining for the Presidency remains unanswered, although she herself has issued a denial, saying she is not interested. But her denials are not to be taken seriously. They don’t mean anything. No-one in Zanu PF, not even her, has the licence to declare their presidential ambitions as long as Mugabe is still alive.
In any event, only a few years ago, she was denying having any interest in politics. Yet last year, she put her hat in the ring. It’s never hard to find excuses or justification. “The people want me”, is the usual justification. She said that when she went for the Women’s League last year and there is no reason why that card will not be available again if she goes for the big one.
Doubtful, however, is that becoming President is a long-held ambition on her part. If she has that ambition, it’s one that she has discovered late in life, most probably through suggestions and encouragement from interested quarters, who prey upon her insecurities regarding the post-Mugabe era.
Certainly, her dramatic entrance into politics last year smacked of a panic reaction in response to a perceived threat, with Mujuru having been cast as the villain. With Mugabe in the twilight of his career, self-preservation must be a priority in her mind. She is only 50 and their children are young, too. She has gained a great deal of wealth and assets during her tenure as wife of the President. Protecting these assets in the post-Mugabe era must be uppermost in her mind. Someone must have whispered to her that the best way to get protection is to have political power.
But the greater likelihood is that there is a group of politicians that see in her a useful instrument in the succession battles. It’s a role she played exceptionally well when getting rid of Mujuru. But now it looks like she is being primed to dispose of Emmerson Mnangagwa, who, to many observers, is the current overwhelming favourite to succeed Mugabe.
It is clear, however, that there is an anti-Mnangagwa faction within Zanu PF and it is this faction that has found Grace Mugabe to be a useful instrument once again. If Grace is a reluctant candidate, this is the group that is promoting her candidature, but not because they have any high regard for her as a politician, but because they probably see her as the best weapon against Mnangagwa because of her proximity to Mugabe. Being close to the respected and feared boss, she can be promoted for leadership without the repercussions that would follow similar promotions of other individuals.
This explains why, “Munhu wese kuna amai” (Everyone back Grace) is the new slogan being chanted by sections of youths and women in Zanu PF, clearly encouraging supporters to rally around Grace. It is an open rebuff to Mnangagwa’s known ambitions. Naturally, Mnangagwa’s allies and supporters are not amused by these new developments and things may yet get nasty. Grace herself almost gave the game away a few weeks ago when she had to backtrack publicly after she seemed to have gone into attack-mode against Mnangagwa. Perhaps she had released the trigger too soon. Although she tried to clean-up, the damage had already been done.
Nevertheless, if she is really dreaming of succeeding her husband, she won’t be the first spouse in history to do so and she certainly won’t be the last. Maybe association with power and getting used to its privileges causes such ambitions to develop, although for some, it has ended up in tears. Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings, Ghana’s former First Lady, has tried but, so far, failed to follow in her husband former President Jerry Rawlings’ footsteps.
In the US, Hilary Clinton is trying again, for the second time, in her bid to become President of the world’s most powerful nation, eight years after her last attempt ended in defeat to eventual winner Barack Obama. In Uganda, there has been talk of the Janet Museveni, their First Lady, being a candidate to one day succeed her husband, Yoweri Museveni, who has led the country since 1986. But Museveni has just been given the nod to run again, so if his wife is really ambitious, she will have to wait another term.
But perhaps the most poignant example, and an ominous one too, for Grace Mugabe is China’s Jiang Qing, the wife of Chairman Mao, who similarly wielded a great amount of power in the last days of her husband’s rule, but ultimately suffered a disgraceful demise after his death. Like Grace today, by the time Chairman Mao died, Jiang Qing was a powerful figure in both the Communist Party and China, but after his death she found herself languishing in jail. In the end, her life ended miserably.
Truth is, if Grace Mugabe is to succeed her husband, there are a number of hurdles to overcome.
Mnangagwa Hurdle
First, she must wrest the title away from Mnangagwa, who at this stage is widely-regarded as the favourite to succeed her husband. While Mnangagwa has denied ambition to succeed Mugabe, no-one takes such denials seriously anymore. They are customary denials, which circumstances demand, because anyone who declares such ambition risks being accused of plotting against Mugabe.
Few people in Zanu PF have waited for this opportunity like Mnangagwa and there is almost a sense of entitlement among his camp. He is not going to let the opportunity slip away without a fight. At 73, he knows this is his last shot. But he also knows what happened to his old nemesis, Mujuru and he will not be taking the Grace challenge for granted. If Grace really wants to become President, then she must find a way to overcome the ambition of Mnangagwa. This isn’t going to be an easy task.
She has to gain the trust and confidence of the military. As I have stated before, the Zimbabwean military plays a critical role in the politics of Zanu PF and in national politics, a feature that goes back to the days of the liberation struggle. While the military often operates in the background, behind the cover of politicians, on occasions, they have come out openly to influence political affairs on the national stage. For example, in 2002, the top military generals made an ominous announcement that they would not salute anyone without liberation war credentials, which was widely interpreted as a de facto disqualification of Morgan Tsvangirai.
Like Tsvangirai, Grace Mugabe has no liberation war credentials. If they are to accept her candidature ahead of Mnangagwa, they would have to accept the charge of hypocrisy and double-standards. The question will turn on whether the security establishment is persuaded sufficiently enough that she has the temperament for the highest office in the land. Do the generals trust her to be their Commander-in-Chief? Her relative inexperience in politics may count against her.
To become President, one has to build a power-base, both within a party and nationally. For Grace Mugabe, this means building a power base within Zanu PF first. It means having powerful allies within the Zanu PF establishment, which includes the security sector. She might not get everyone’s support, but she needs powerful allies who can back her bid. The Women’s League is a useful platform, as is the Youth League in the party as they are good vehicles for mobilising support. But they are not monolithic entities and there are bound to be divisions even in those bodies.
The “Munhu wese kuna amai” slogan being championed in the women’s and youth wings is designed to build this critical power-base. However, it comes with expenses, which include alienating others and the creation of new enemies. The strong words used against her and her supporters at the recent funeral of a Zanu PF legislator in Kadoma are indicative of the fissures already developing. One of Jiang Qing’s problems during her time as First Lady was that she created enemies in her role and when the moment came after Chairman Mao’s death, they turned against her.
Borrowed Power
The centre of Grace Mugabe’s power-base at the moment is her husband. He is the most powerful man in Zanu PF and in Zimbabwean politics. No-one in Zanu PF can challenge him. It is this power that Grace is enjoying but it will only last for as long as he is around. As Jiang Qing found out, the moment her husband, Chairman Mao died in 1976, that power was gone, too. Soon thereafter, her enemies took revenge. She was detained, tried and sentenced to death, only to be released on medical grounds but she didn’t last long afterwards. All these were people who would not have touched her while Chairman Mao was still alive, but once he had departed, she was easy game, without power or protection.
Likewise, Grace Mugabe might suffer a similar fate, finding herself exposed and without power once her husband is no longer in the picture. Those who are holding back out of respect and fear of her husband will no longer be restrained. This is why her political involvement is a huge gamble. It could pay off, if she or a preferred candidate wins power after Mugabe or it could turn very sour if opponents who feel hard done by succeed.
She needs to build her own power base beyond her husband. The only problem is she may have left it too late. It might have been a better idea if she had entered the political arena long back and, in the process, gradually built a loyal base around popular causes. Right now, the weight that she is throwing around derives from association with her husband. After his departure, she may have to drop from the political heavyweight division down to the featherweight division.
Gender & Patriarchy
It doesn’t matter that she is the wife of the President, Grace still has to overcome the same challenges that all women in Zimbabwean politics face. Zimbabwe remains a highly patriarchal society, with attitudes and practices, especially in the political field, still heavily staked against women. It will not be easy for her to surmount these challenges, especially after Mugabe has gone.
One of the reasons Mujuru faced opposition among her male counterparts was that she was a woman. I recall debates during the constitution-making process when the running-mates clause was suspended with mutual agreement by all parties, and background whispers being that the two candidates in the two main parties would have had to nominate their two female Vice Presidents as their first running mates who would become their immediate successors in the event of a vacancy. Patriarchy is still a big issue in Zimbabwean politics and Grace would have to overcome that hurdle.
The colleague of that earlier anecdote did not live long enough to see Grace Mugabe emerge from her shell to become the most vocal woman on the political landscape. Her role so far has been quite colourful. But whether she is able to succeed her husband depends on many factors. Her best chance, however, is while her husband is still around. If Mugabe pushes her case, there may be challenges, but they will be few. Whether she sustains it after he is gone will be another matter altogether.
But in assuming an active political role in Mugabe’s final years, Grace took a massive gamble. The story of Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao, who similarly took on a key political role in his last days but suffered terribly after his death, must be essential reading for her. I am not sure those encouraging her seriously believe that she can be President. What they are interested in, however, is her utility as an instrument to stop a Mnangagwa presidency. If she and her close advisers have not sussed that out, then there is a serious problem.
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