The wife of Zimbabwe’s veteran leader Robert Mugabe has been called “Gucci Grace” and “First Shopper”, but some suspect she may be looking for a new title — “Mrs President”.
As the battle to succeed her 90-year-old husband heats up, 49-year-old Grace is set to take a top post in the ruling party’s powerful Politburo at a key congress which formally opened on Thursday.
Jockeying for the leadership of ZANU-PF, which has ruled Zimbabwe for 34 years, has seen vicious factional infighting — with Grace’s late entry startling analysts who had seen it as a two-horse race.
The former typist, presumably with Mugabe’s backing, has already put paid to the ambitions of one of the top contenders, Vice President Joice Mujuru.
After her nomination as head of the ZANU-PF women’s league in August, Grace immediately launched a sustained campaign against Mujuru, accusing her of corruption and plotting to topple Mugabe.
Last month, Mujuru, a former guerrilla fighter who had held cabinet posts in every Mugabe government since independence in 1980, was ousted from the party leadership.
That leaves Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa as the remaining top contender — unless, as many are beginning to believe, Grace herself has been chosen by her husband to ensure a Mugabe dynasty in Zimbabwe.
Born on July 23, 1965, in South Africa, Grace Marufu became Mugabe’s mistress while working as a secretary in his office in the early 1990s. Both were already married.
They wed in 1996 after Mugabe’s first wife Sally died. Grace’s husband, an air force officer, divorced and was posted to China.
She has three children with Mugabe, 41 years her senior, and a son from her previous marriage.
– ‘Ignorance is bliss’ –
As First Lady, Grace shied away from the public in the early years, while her lavish tastes and love for shopping abroad earned her the sobriquets “Gucci Grace” and “First Shopper”.
In 2009, she punched a British photographer in Hong Kong for taking pictures of her at a luxury hotel.
But she told a South African Broadcasting Corporation programme last year that she is no longer concerned about what people think of her.
“I have developed a thick skin, I don’t even care,” she said. “My husband says ignorance is bliss.”
However, efforts to change perceptions of her have dominated state-run media since her entry into active politics, with her supporters showering her with new nicknames — such as “Dr Amai (Doctor Mother)”, “unifier” and “queen of queens”.
It was announced that Grace had been awarded a doctorate by the University of Zimbabwe, where her husband is chancellor, reportedly just three months after enrolling.
This week a road was named after her at the venue of the ZANU-PF congress, which will elect the new party leadership.
Mugabe is expected to be confirmed as the party’s leader, but the fight for positions on the powerful politburo could be decisive for the campaign to succeed him.
Political analyst, Earnest Mudzengi said Grace Mugabe lacks popular appeal and has stirred disharmony in ZANU-PF.
“She was literally hand-picked. She has created enemies and enemies are being created as we speak, just look at the purges in ZANU-PF,” Mudzengi said.
“She does not have popular support and does not fit in the framework of how ZANU-PF leaders are chosen because normally they would require that someone must have liberation war credentials or that they must have worked tirelessly for the party.”
But the Mugabe family has a lot to protect when the president finally leaves power or dies — he and Grace are major land owners, having several farms taken from white farmers during controversial land reforms.