JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When Robert Mugabe prattled on for too long at a recent ruling party congress, giving delegates an impromptu lecture in liberation history, his wife Grace handed him a note. The nonagenarian president, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, took pause.
“My wife has written a note; she says I’m talking too much,” Mugabe announced. “That’s how I am treated even at home, so I must listen.”
To observers of Zimbabwe’s first family, it was a telling moment after a rowdy six months in Zanu-PF politics, most notably the surprising entry of Grace Mugabe into the top leadership.
Until recently, the much younger wife of Robert Mugabe was best known for her love of fashion and high-end shopping, earning her nicknames such as “Gucci Grace” and “The First Shopper.”
Now the First Lady has bold political ambitions. And it is unclear who is in charge, with some observers believing that she is already pulling the strings.
“Will she be president? I’m sure she will try,” said Ibbo Mandaza, who heads the Southern African Political and Economic Series Trust think tank. “She’s part of the future plan, in terms of succession.”
Grace Mugabe’s sudden reinvention, in what some have called a “bedroom coup,” has taken Zimbabwe by surprise. To bolster her thin credentials, she was handed a doctorate from the University of Zimbabwe, apparently completed in just two months. Robert Mugabe, who is the university’s chancellor, capped her at the graduation ceremony.
Ahead of Zanu-PF’s five yearly elective congress earlier this month, the First Lady ratcheted up her often brutal verbal attacks on political rivals.
Her main target has been Joice Mujuru, who until recently was the country’s vice president, and who many had considered to be the leading candidate to succeed Mugabe. In a stunning reversal, Mujuru and her Zanu-PF allies were accused of plotting a coup against the president, and purged from their positions.
Grace has declared that if Mujuru were killed, “dogs and fleas would not disturb her carcass.”
The new heir apparent is Emmerson Mnangagwa, a hardliner known as the “Crocodile” for his reputed cruelty and political cunning. Mnangagwa was appointed to one of two vice-president positions, and is currently in charge with the Mugabes away on their annual holiday.
Grace was made leader of the ZANU-PF women’s league, and now has a spot on the party’s powerful politburo. In October, following her nomination for the position, she embarked on a Meet the People-type tour of the country, to thank party branches for the support while also serving as a political platform.
Grace, 49, met her husband while working in the presidential typing pool. Mugabe’s first wife, Sally, was dying and had never borne him a child. And so Grace was chosen to become his mistress, and they had three children together.
Political analyst Thabani Nyoni said that Grace Mugabe is seen by Zimbabweans as a woman of privilege who does not connect well with ordinary people, and who stole someone else’s husband.
“They view her the same way the French people viewed Marie Antoinette. They view her as someone who took advantage,” he said.
“Sally was the anchor. People believe she is the one who kept her husband in line. When she died things went haywire with him.”
The motivations behind Grace’s sudden interest in politics remains unclear. Some pundits have speculated that it is an attempt by Robert Mugabe, who turns 91 in February and is known as “The Old Man,” to create a family dynasty.
“He is a foxy, clever, intelligent individual who likes to keep people guessing,” Nyoni said. “He likes to keep everyone divided so he is the unifying force.”
Mandaza, in a recent analysis, described the outcome of the Zanu-PF congress as “the entrenchment of a securocratic state” as the post-Mugabe era is born.
Meanwhile Zimbabwe remains mired in political and economic chaos.
“There’s no direction,” Mandaza said in an interview. “There’s no clear understanding of the issues. We’re just drifting. Nothing will start happening until The Old Man goes.”