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President Robert Mugabe

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DisGrace

Grace Mugabe, second wife of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, had a moment of awful clarity about her future three years ago. Speaking about Joice Mujuru, the woman who was then vice-president and the elderly president’s likely successor, she said: “She has been telling people that once Mugabe is gone…she will drag me in the streets, with people laughing while my flesh sticks to the tarmac.”

It’s doubtful that Mujuru said any such thing, but it was very revealing about Grace Mugabe’s fears. So she had a word with her husband, and Joice Mujuru was no longer vice-president. She was replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa, who served as Mugabe’s special assistant during the liberation war of the 1970s and had been close to him ever since.

Mnangagwa survived an attempted poisoning in August, but now he is gone too. People began to see him as the heir apparent, so on Sunday Grace Mugabe told a rally in Harare “The snake must be hit on the head. We must deal with the real snake behind the factions and discord in the party.”

On Monday, Mnangagwa was fired in an official statement that accused him of “traits of disloyalty.” It was almost verbatim the same statement that was issued when Joice Mujuru was dismissed in 2014 – and it is expected that Grace Mugabe will be appointed vice-president herself at a special congress of the ruling Zanu-PF party next month.

It looks like ambition run amok, but it’s actually more complicated than that. She is rich and powerful at the moment, but as Zimbabwean journalist Andy Moyse pointed out a couple of years ago: “She’s going to be terribly exposed once (Robert Mugabe) is gone because there’s no political structure to save her. She’s trying to entrench her position and her assets.”

Grace Marufu was a 20-year-old typist at State House in Harare when Robert Mugabe, 44 years her senior, started to take an interest in her. She was already married to her childhood sweetheart, an air force pilot, but one thing led to another and she had her first child with Mugabe as his wife lay dying of kidney failure. She later divorced her husband, and in 1996 she became Zimbabwe’s ‘First Lady’ by marrying Mugabe.

For the next 18 years she took no visible interest in politics, but her frequent and expensive shopping trips abroad – she allegedly once spent $120,000 in a single day in Paris, and she was spotted in the business class lounge at Singapore airport with fifteen trolleys full of purchases – made her deeply unpopular with the Zimbabwean public. She was known as the ‘First Shopper’, or ‘Gucci Grace’, or just ‘DisGrace’.

And then, three years ago, everything changed. It was probably just Mugabe’s advancing age that made her realise how vulnerable she would be after he died: he’s in pretty good shape for 93, but he clearly isn’t going to be around much longer. So she suddenly plunged into politics.

She had her husband make her the head of the powerful women’s league of the ruling Zanu-PF party, she was awarded a PhD in sociology by the University of Zimbabwe in the record time of two months (no thesis has ever surfaced), and Dr. Grace Mugabe started traveling around the country holding rallies that became known as the ‘Graceland Tour’.

All the senior members of Zanu-PF are quite rich, but she is probably the richest of all, so she has resources to buy allies. She has the Old Man wrapped around her finger, and he holds absolute power for as long as he stays alive and alert. In only three years she has shoved aside all the other contenders for the succession.

“They say I want to be president,” she said. “Why not? Am I not Zimbabwean?” And president she will be after Robert Mugabe dies – at least for a week or two. But she has made a lot of enemies in the party, and she has no real popular support.

She will probably have a couple of years to build a political machine of her own, because Mugabe is planning to run for president again next year, and will of course win. But he would be 99 years old when his next term expires, and he is likely to expire himself well before that.

Grace Mugabe is literally a bare-knuckle fighter. In 2002 she beat up a journalist who offended her using a “knuckle-duster of diamond rings”, as one report put it. Just this September she assaulted a young South African “model” whom she caught visiting her grown sons, who are both living the high life in Johannesburg. She won’t go down easily – but she almost certainly will go down.

It was not Grace Mugabe who turned Zimbabwe into an economic wreck so extreme that most people’s main source of income is remittances from the fifth of the Zimbabwean population that has fled to South Africa or Botswana. Her husband is really to blame for this human disaster, but her extravagant spending makes her a target for the resentment too.

Once he dies, she will be lucky to get out alive.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“She…down”)

Amazing Grace

Political dynasties tend to thrive mainly in very large democratic countries where name-recognition is a huge asset: think two President Adams, two President Roosevelts, and maybe soon a third President Bush or a second President Clinton in the United States, or the string of Indian prime ministers from the Nehru-Gandhi clan. By contrast, such dynasties are rare in Africa – but there’s an exception to every rule.

Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since the end of the white-minority regime in 1980. He’s in pretty good shape for 90 (and his mother lived to 100), but it’s inevitable that the question of the succession will pop up from time to time. The answer has usually been that it’s a race between two leading figures of the ruling Zanu-PF party: Vice-President Joice Mujuru and Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Mnangagwa was generally reckoned to be Mugabe’s favourite for the role, but Mujuru, who fought in the “Bush War” against the white regime and once shot down a Rhodesian military helicopter with a machine-gun, had more support among the party’s activists. In any case, with the next “election” not due until 2018 and Mugabe showing no signs of imminent mortality, there was no urgency in the situation.

Then in September, Joice Mujuru was awarded a PhD by the University of Zimbabwe for a thesis on “strategic exploratory entrepreneurship”, whatever that may be.  (Zimbabwe is a poor and mismanaged country, but it probably has the best-educated population in sub-Saharan Africa, so a higher academic degree is a political asset.)

It’s not clear how much of the work Dr Mujuru did herself, but her thesis was soon on the shelves of the university library. The remarkable thing is that Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace was awarded a PhD in sociology at the same ceremony, although she had only enrolled at the university three months before. Her thesis has still not shown up in the library.

Since mid-September, however, Zimbabwe has been through a three-month political blitzkrieg that saw Grace Mugabe supplant Joice Mujuru as the heir apparent to the presidency of Zimbabwe. First she was nominated as the head of the Zanu-PF’s women’s league, despite a complete lack of political experience. Then she embarked on a “meet-the-nation” tour of all ten of Zimbabwe’s provinces whose main theme was the vilification of Joice Mujuru.

She called the vice-president “corrupt, an extortionist, incompetent, a gossiper, a liar and ungrateful,” adding that she was “power-hungry, daft, foolish, divisive and a disgrace.”  She claimed that Mujuru was collaborating with opposition forces and white people to undermine the country’s post-independence gains. And finally she accused the independence war hero of plotting to assassinate her husband, President Robert Mugabe.

The pay-off came last week at the Zanu-PF party congress in Harare (take the newly renamed Dr Grace Mugabe Drive and have the chauffeur drop you at the door). Joice Mujuru was purged from the party, with Robert Mugabe telling the congress: “I don’t  know how many books we could write about Mujuru’s crimes.” Grace Mugabe was confirmed as head of the women’s league, and everybody expects that her next stop will be the vice-presidency.

There were a few dissenting voices: Jabulani Sibanda, a veteran of the independence war, told a meeting that this was a “bedroom coup” and argued that “power was not sexually transmitted.” But he was charged with insulting the president, and most people just kept their heads down. Opposing the Mugabes can be an unhealthy and occasionally even a fatal business.

But what is really going on here? Grace Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s First Lady, is a woman of modest education and coarse manners who met the president when she was manning the switchboard at State House. 41 years younger than the president, she began an affair with Robert Mugabe that produced two children even before his wife died.  She was known as “First Shopper” because of her extravagance, but she never showed any interest in politics.

That’s why some observers are persuaded that she isn’t really Robert Mugabe’s choice as successor. On the contrary, they argue, he’s just using her to clear Joice Mujuru out of the way so that his real choice, Emmerson Mnangagwa, can become vice-president. But it seems an unnecessarily round-about way for an autocrat like Mugabe to do business. It also ignores how strong her hold on him is.

At last week’s party congress, Mugabe, frail and sometimes forgetful, took the mike to dissolve the outgoing central committee, and instead wandered off into a lecture about the liberation struggle. Grace wrote him a note telling him to sit down. He did, telling the audience “My wife has written a note; she says I’m talking too much. That’s how I am treated even at home, so I must listen.”

It is entirely possible that Grace’s sudden rise to power is her own idea. If it is, it’s a bad one, because her power would not long outlast Robert Mugabe’s demise. She has neither political skills nor a base within the party. But she might be doing the country an inadvertent favour even so, if the intra-party struggle to get rid of her after her husband’s death shook Zanu-PF’s long and mostly malign stranglehold on power in Zimbabwe.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 9. (“Then…library”; and “There…business”)