Zimbabwe’s ‘Amazing Grace’ (Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt))

Mugabe and Grace (photo: Reuters)

In the Arab world presidents have been grooming their sons for power for decades in a game that only finally lapsed with the eruption of the Arab Spring. But in Africa the tradition has been going on uninterrupted.

In Togo, Gabon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the sons of former presidents are ensconced in the seats of power. Now, in a curious riff on a familiar refrain, Zimbabwe’s first lady is developing a taste for power. Grace Mugabe, 50, wife of president Robert Mugabe, 91, is rising fast on the scene of Zimbabwean politics and is already eliminating some of her rivals.

In 2014, Grace was designated head of the Women’s League of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Since then, she has succeeded in removing vice-president Joice Mujuru from office, accusing her of plotting against the incumbent president.

According to a report in the London newspaper The Independent, Grace’s road to the presidency is not going to be lined with roses, however. The man her husband named as vice-president in December 2014, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is a hardened politician with many supporters amid the ruling elite.

Mnangagwa was minister of state security from 1980 to 1988 and has served as parliamentary speaker, minister of defence, and minister of justice since then. Even so, for the past two years the Zimbabwe press has been singing the praises of the first lady, lauding her charitable activities and praising her other qualities, including her personal beauty and love for fashion.

There is a love story here, one that doesn’t say much about the first lady, which the British press has taken to calling “cunning” and “ruthless”.

Before marrying Mugabe, Grace was married to Stanley Goreraza, a diplomat and former pilot. Then, while working as a secretary in Mugabe’s office, the twenty-something beauty caught the president’s eye. Despite the 40-year difference in age, the two started an affair and got married as soon as Mugabe’s first wife, Sally Hayfron, died in 1996.

Mugabe claims that Sally knew he was having an affair with Grace and gave the couple her blessing before she died.

When David Smith, a reporter from the London newspaper The Guardian, asked Grace about her presidential ambitions, she didn’t deny the rumours. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” she said.

According to Smith, sentiments about Grace in the country are mixed. Her supporters describe her as “amai,” or mother, while her detractors call her “Gucci Grace” or “first shopper”.

Grace’s overseas shopping expeditions are legendary, The Guardian reporting that “she spent �75,000 on luxury goods in just one day in Paris in 2003.” On occasion, the first lady has also been forced to deny rumours that she has been unfaithful to the president.

Undaunted by rumours of marital infidelity and extravagant spending, the woman some journalists adoringly call “Amazing Grace” has been developing a passion for politics. As head of the ZANU-PF Women’s League, she has toured the country to attend a series of rallies where she has delivered tirades against her husband’s perceived enemies.

At one of the rallies, according to The Guardian, Grace declared that “they say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not Zimbabwean?”

The international NGO Transparency International considers Zimbabwe to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking it 163 out of a total of 176 countries with 20 from a total of 100 points.

Grace’s ambitions also go beyond the political to the academic. In 2014, she received a doctorate in sociology from the University of Zimbabwe, a degree many consider to be fraudulent as the University has no record of receiving a thesis by the first lady.

As a leading member of the Mugabe regime, Grace is under personal sanction by both the US and the EU over electoral fraud and human rights abuses.

Farag Abdel-Fattah, an African Studies professor at Cairo University, believes that Grace’s presidential bid is more at risk from rivals inside the regime than from outsiders. “The opposition in Zimbabwe is weak, so Grace’s foes will come from inside, not outside, the regime,” Abdel-Fattah said.

Al-Tayeb Zein Al-Abedin, a political science professor at Khartoum University in Sudan, is also holding his judgement for now.

“In Gabon, Togo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the successor was not only a blood relation but had also worked closely inside the regime for years,” he noted. Being a woman and a relative newcomer to politics may undermine Grace’s case. “We have seen no similar experiences in the past,” Zein Al-Abedin admitted.

The first case of a father-to-son bequest in Africa took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo when Joseph Kabila took over after the assassination of his father Laurent-Désiré Kabila in 2001.

In Togo, Faure Gnassingbé took over in 2005 after the death of his father Gnassingbé Eyadéma who had been in power since 1967. In Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba took over in 2009 from his father Omar Bongo who had ruled the country for over 41 years.