Zimbabwe’s first lady Grace Mugabe, a polarising figure, may succeed in the footsteps of her 93-year-old husband Robert as president when he dies or steps down.
Once a quiet figure is known for her shopping and her charity work, she now has a high-profile role in the ruling Zanu-PF party as the head of its women’s league and she has been instrumental in the ousting of several potential successors to the presidency.
Her main rival, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, was accused of disloyalty and sacked in early November 2017. Mrs Mugabe has won key party members’ support – including her husband’s – for succeeding him to the vice-presidency.
At 52 she is four decades younger than her husband, the world’s oldest ruler, who has governed Zimbabwe since the end of white-minority rule in 1980.
Mrs Mugabe has always been a staunch supporter of her husband – earlier this year she memorably said that he could even win votes as a corpse. She herself has not denied wanting to be take the helm of the country, and at a rally in 2014 she said: “They say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?”
But who is Grace Mugabe, and why is her rise so controversial? Here are a few quick facts:
- Began affair with Robert Mugabe, 41 years her senior, whilst working as a typist in state house
- Mr Mugabe later said his first wife Sally, who was terminally ill at the time, knew and approved of the relationship
- Married Mr Mugabe, her second husband, in 1996 in an extravagant ceremony. They have three children
- Nicknamed “Gucci Grace” by her critics who accuse her of lavish spending
- Along with her husband, is subject to EU and US sanctions, including travel bans
- Controversially received a PhD in September 2014 after just two months
- Appointed head of Zanu-PF women’s wing in 2014
- Accused by a South African model of assault in August 2017
Mrs Mugabe spearheaded the ousting of a former ally, then-Vice-President Joice Mujuru, in 2014.
She said the vice-president should be sacked from government because she was “corrupt, an extortionist, incompetent, a gossiper, a liar and ungrateful” and accused her of collaborating with opposition forces and white people to undermine the country’s post-independence gains.
A few months later Mrs Mujuru was expelled from Zanu-PF. She and her supporters have since set up a new party.
The new vice-president was Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former justice minister who Mrs Mugabe had called “loyal and disciplined”.
By 2017, Mrs Mugabe was publicly calling on her husband to remove Mr Mnangagwa. She suggested that his supporters were planning a coup.
The 49-year-old is believed to have earned her sociology PhD in two months from the University of Zimbabwe. Her thesis has not been filed in the university library.
However, the doctorate gives the first lady gravitas – and within weeks of being capped, campaign material with her new title appeared at rallies around the country as she prepared to take over the leadership of the Zanu-PF women’s wing after being nominated for the role in August.
She is known to be tough – at one time kicking some farm workers and their families off land – but she is usually modest and reserved in interviews.
It is fair to say Mrs Mugabe evokes strong emotions – her fans applaud her style and forthright nature, her detractors have nicknamed her “Gucci Grace” and “DisGrace” because of her alleged appetite for extravagant shopping.
Grace Mugabe has since grown into a powerful businesswoman and sees herself as a philanthropist, founding an orphanage on a farm just outside the capital, Harare, with the help of Chinese funding.
A nice graphic from AFP charting Robert Mugabe’s rise to power below.
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