From Gucci Grace to President Mugabe?

Zimbabwe’s wildly unpopular first lady is making a play to succeed her husband as president. She might know something about his health that the rest of us don’t.

Zimbabwean President's wife, Grace Mugabe raises her fist as she addresses at a rally in Harare on July 28, 2013. Zimbabweans go to the polls on July 31 to choose between veteran President Robert Mugabe and long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER JOE        (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)
Zimbabwean President's wife, Grace Mugabe raises her fist as she addresses at a rally in Harare on July 28, 2013. Zimbabweans go to the polls on July 31 to choose between veteran President Robert Mugabe and long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER JOE (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)

JOHANNESBURG — Grace Mugabe wore her husband to the rally — literally: For the occasion she donned a ruffled dress made from fabric printed with the Zimbabwean president’s stern portrait and a matching green bow in her hair — the color of Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party.

But the October rally in Rushinga was in the first lady’s honor, one of several recent political events that together look suspiciously like a budding presidential campaign. While Grace hasn’t formally declared her entry into politics, she has hinted strongly at a possible run to replace her aging husband. At a rally in 2014, she said, “Some say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not Zimbabwean too?”

Onstage in Rushinga, Grace left little doubt about her intentions. She delivered a fiery speech, broadcast live on state television, in which she attacked journalists, praised the Chinese yuan, and promoted the government’s plan to save Zimbabwe’s economy. Then she doled out gifts to her supporters: cooking oil, clothing, knapsacks, maize. Senior government officials had trekked all the way from the capital, Harare, to the northeastern district of Rushinga for the occasion — a three-hour trip by road, though Grace came by helicopter. Some officials went as far as prostrating themselves at her feet.

Thirty-five years into his rule, Robert Mugabe has given no public indications that he plans to leave office. The next presidential election isn’t due until 2018, and the “Old Man,” as he is known in Zimbabwe, has already been anointed by Zanu-PF as the party’s presidential nominee (he would be 94 years old on election day).

But the wife of the aging strongman seems to have something else in mind. After a spate of unexpected political maneuvering, Grace Mugabe, a woman with no known previous political ambitions or interest, is campaigning — unofficially, but ever more aggressively — to fill his shoes.

Robert Besseling, an analyst at the research firm IHS who follows events in Zimbabwe closely, says that Grace is “absolutely” on the campaign trail, with the aim of safeguarding the Mugabe family future. Over the years, the Mugabes have built up sizable business interests, including a dairy farm owned by Grace that like many properties in Zimbabwe was seized from white farmers. The true extent of the family’s wealth is unknown, but in 2002 the Financial Times estimated that it could be as much as $100 million — much of it ill-gotten.

She has been given quiet sanction by her husband to pursue her own political ambitions,” Besseling says. “The main force behind this is that a succession by her would almost guarantee that no family members would be prosecuted and their business empire will remain untouched.”

Grace Marufu, as she was known before her marriage to the president, was a shy, young typist at the State House in the late 1980s when she met Robert Mugabe. He was 41 years her elder. At the time, Mugabe’s first wife, Sally, was dying, reportedly of kidney disease, and they had no surviving children. Grace became the president’s mistress and eventually bore him three children. They were married in 1996.

Since then, Grace, now 50, has mainly been known for her love of fashion and luxury, earning nicknames like “Gucci Grace” and the “First Shopper” from the media. This extravagant behavior has made her hugely unpopular among Zimbabweans (though, conveniently, there is no public polling to demonstrate this). Her reinvention as a political figure, who goes by the honorific “Dr. Amai Grace Mugabe,” has come as a surprise to almost everyone. (Amai means “mother” in Shona, one of Zimbabwe’s official languages, and is a traditional indication of respect.)

One might say that Grace’s transformation from profligate first lady to presidential hopeful began abruptly in 2014, when she was suddenly awarded a doctorate in sociology from the University of Zimbabwe — ostensibly completed in just two months. She was capped at the graduation ceremony by her husband, who, in addition to being president, serves as the university’s chancellor.

Then in late 2014, Grace was tapped to lead the Zanu-PF women’s league, which comes with a spot on the party’s powerful politburo. By this point, she was already in the midst of a whistle-stop tour around the country to thank her supporters for propelling her to power. Thousands were bused out to her rallies, which she used to viciously attack the popular Joice Mujuru, who was then the country’s vice president and was considered to be a leading candidate to succeed Mugabe.

Grace accused the vice president and her allies in the party of plotting to assassinate the president. They were subsequently sacked from their positions in government. To add insult to injury, the first lady told a rally that if Mujuru were killed, “dogs and fleas would not disturb her carcass.”

Grace has now embarked on another set of political rallies, traveling in military helicopters usually reserved for the president. Some Zimbabwe observers, noting her aggressive campaigning, have wondered whether she knows something that the rest of the country doesn’t about her husband’s health.

“Without a doubt, she is the one person who is very close to the president, the one person who knows the health status of the president,” says Pedzisai Ruhanya, director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, a think tank that does policy research and analysis. “She sees a vacuum in terms of the capacity of the president to run the affairs of the state. This gives her the opportunity to influence party politics.”

While the aging president’s health is a perennial source of speculation, recent incidents have sparked renewed concern. This year, Mugabe tripped and fell on the red carpet after arriving at the airport in Harare, resulting in an embarrassing photo that became a popular meme. Mugabe stumbled again in late October as he walked up a ramp to the podium at the India-Africa summit in New Delhi.

And it’s not just the president’s physical health that appears to be in decline. In September, Mugabe read the wrong speech at the opening of Zimbabwe’s Parliament. Embarrassingly, it was a speech he had already delivered during the state-of-the-nation address a month earlier.

Even if Grace knows more than her rivals about the state of her husband’s health, any bid to succeed Mugabe would be far from a sure thing. She lacks the liberation-war credentials that elevated her husband and the kind of grassroots support that many of her rivals enjoy. “Without [Robert Mugabe], she stands next to no chance,” says Besseling. “Grace Mugabe only has a chance to succeed if her husband gives her full backing and does so while he is still alive.”

After Mujuru was sacked, the new heir apparent became Emmerson Mnangagwa, a hard-liner who was appointed to one of two vice presidential positions. But with Grace’s campaign gaining momentum, his standing within the party seems more precarious.

In addition to the tacit backing of her husband, Grace is rumored to have the support of a group of Zanu-PF members known as Generation 40, or the G40, referring to the fact that most are in their 40s and were not involved in the liberation war. Thought to be among the G40 are Patrick Zhuwao, the youth and indigenization minister, and Local Government Minister Saviour Kasukuwere.

But the battle lines are far from clear-cut. Some analysts suggest that the G40’s support for Grace is in fact a ploy to challenge Mnangagwa, with the first lady being used as a pawn. Other former members of Mugabe’s inner circle appear to be backing Mujuru, who still enjoys a strong base of support even though she was sacked. What is clear is that any bid to keep the presidency within the family will be fiercely contested. And given Zimbabwe’s history of electoral violence, it has the potential to get ugly.

Alex Magaisa, a political analyst writing in the Zimbabwe Independent, warned in August that infighting within Zanu-PF “could turn bloody” if the Mugabe succession issue isn’t dealt with before his death. “Grace is clearly enjoying her moment of power at present, but what she does not realise is that her current authority is, in reality, borrowed power,” he wrote.

While the question of succession plays out, Zimbabwe is mired in its worst economic crisis since the hyperinflation of 2008, when the country’s Reserve Bank resorted to printing $100 trillion notes. Now mired in deflation, with the U.S. dollar as the main currency, the government is running out of money to pay its civil servants. In Harare, power cuts can last up to 18 hours a day; drought has left 1.5 million people in need of food aid.

Grace seems to be capitalizing on the environment of scarcity. At rallies, she has doled out everything from tractors to bars of soap, handbags, blankets, and shoes. Opposition politicians accuse her of using government equipment to campaign. She is also accused of donating agricultural equipment paid for with a $98 million loan from Brazil’s More Food for Africa program.

Obert Gutu, spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, complains that Grace — like other Zanu-PF members — appears to see no difference between state and party resources.

“She’s mobilizing for herself. She appreciates that her husband is old, her husband is sickly,” Gutu says. “Zanu-PF is already in a campaign mode. Everyone is trying to position themselves.… Where else in the world can you find a 91-year-old leader who doesn’t want to deal with the issue of succession?”

Photo credit: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola