Grace Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s first lady, clinched her surprising political ascent on Saturday with the announcement that she has been appointed head of the ruling party’s powerful women’s wing, increasing speculation that she will succeed Robert Mugabe.
Mrs Mugabe’s appointment on Saturday as leader of the Zanu PF women’s league, which gives her an automatic place on the country’s politburo, was received with wild cheers from the crowd of 12,000 Zanu PF party delegates.
In a triumphant address to congress delegates, the first lady, dressed in Zanu PF regalia, thanked her husband for the appointment as head of the women’s league, describing it as “an honour for my family”.
“I wish to assure you, Comrade President, that I shall truly, faithfully lead the women’s league from the front,” Mrs Mugabe said, according to the South African Press Association.
There were no other challengers for the role. Mrs Mugabe, 49, is now well positioned as a potential successor to her 90-year-old husband, who is increasingly frail and travels regularly to Singapore for medical treatment.
Seemingly out of nowhere, she embarked on an ambitious political career, holding rallies in each of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces, all the while ranting at beleaguered vice-president Joice Mujuru and her supporters within Zanu-PF.
Mrs Mugabe was hailed during the Zanu PF congress last week as “The Lady of the Revelation,” or “Amazing Grace,” for having “saved” Zimbabwe from an apparent Western-backed conspiracy led by Mrs Mujuru.
She was praised for having revealed an alleged plot by Mrs Mujuru and her supporters to assassinate President Robert Mugabe, despite presenting no evidence.
Mrs Mujuru was sacked from her position in Zanu PF this week following months of aggressive campaigning by the first lady, accompanied by accusations carried daily in Zimbabwe’s state media.
Mrs Mujuru, who had previously been considered a leading contender to succeed Mr Mugabe, has also been accused of corruption, and of conjuring an anti-Zanu PF deal with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
During Saturday’s lengthy congress proceedings, the Mugabes sat together in a white tent, sheltered from the sweltering Harare summer heat. Mrs Mujuru is believed to have watched the congress at home on national television.
Mr Mugabe was confirmed as the only candidate for the party presidency, and as presidential candidate for the 2018 elections, when he will be 94.
It is believed that Mrs Mugabe sought the politburo role to protect her husband’s position as president, allowing him to stay in power for the rest of his life. Information gleaned through the position will also help Mrs Mugabe keep an eye on the family’s assets.
While some observers have touted Mrs Mugabe as a potential vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a Zanu PF strongman, is widely considered to be the leading candidate.
There was massive vocal support from congress delegates for Mr Mnangagwa, a 72-year-old struggle veteran and minister of justice, as well as the party’s secretary for administration.
Mrs Mugabe is thought to have formed an alliance with Mr Mnangagwa, who is also considered a front-runner for succeeding the president.
Rugare Gumbo, the former Zanu PF spokesman was expelled from the party this week, warned that Mrs Mugabe, a former typist, has neither the education nor wisdom to hold a leadership role within the party, never mind the country.
“If you hear her speaking in our language, Shona, she sounds like an old, rural, peasant woman. She can’t be a national leader,” he said.
Mr Gumbo was accused alongside Mrs Mujuru of being part of the “plot” to “assassinate” Mr Mugabe.
While Mrs Mugabe is cheered by Zanu PF party members, she has struggled to find favour with ordinary Zimbabweans.
“We all hate Grace, we hate her more than we hate the old man,” said a vendor at a Harare shopping centre, selling plums from South Africa and lychees from Mozambique.
“Please don’t even talk her name. When he dies, she must leave the country and go away,” the vendor said.
Mrs Mugabe met her future husband when she was a typist at Zimbabwe’s state house, and already married with a young child.
Pretty and shy, the then Grace Marafu quickly fell into a relationship with Mr Mugabe and had a baby while his first wife Sally was dying.
Robert and Grace married in 1996, following Sally’s death, in a lavish wedding largely funded by white farmers whose land he would take a few years later.
Mrs Mugabe has since fashioned herself as a philanthropist, running an orphanage outside Harare, along with one of the country’s biggest dairy farms.
Her rise in politics has been accompanied by sudden academic qualifications. In September Mrs Mugabe was awarded a doctorate in sociology from the University of Zimbabwe, after just three months of study, and was capped by her husband who is also the university’s chancellor.