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The First Family brawl

THE Mugabe family loves a good punch-up. The old man, Robert, Zimbabwe’s president, has always been a brawler, though a sly and eloquent one.

His specialism is to set up ambitious underlings in the ruling Zanu-PF party to fight so that he can eventually chide them for factionalism and push aside the likely winner, perpetually eliminating potential rivals. The system has worked well since he took over the party in 1975 (officially 1977).

Aged 90 now, he still commands the stage.

His wife, Grace, is a chip off the old block. Aged 49, she recently started a punch-up unlike any the party has seen, forgoing the subtle ambiguities with which Bob, as he is universally known, has often wrapped his verbal blows. Her barbs have been aimed at Joice Mujuru, the 59-year-old vice-president, who was hand-picked years ago by the old man and until last month seemed to be the front-runner in the treacherous race to succeed him.

The First Lady’s attacks have been vitriolic in the extreme, even by local standards, suggesting that Mujuru might be killed and that “dogs and fleas would not disturb her carcass”.

During an ill-tempered cross-country tour, involving 10 rallies, the First Lady repeatedly called for the vice-president’s resignation and endorsed as a replacement the 76-year-old Justice minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa, one of the party’s hard men.

In 2004 the former spymaster was himself purged as the party’s prospective number two under similar circumstances.

Then, as now, the rank-and-file had started to glance past the president toward possible successors.

In the case of Mujuru, the axe seems to be coming down very publicly. Front pages of official newspapers amplified the First Lady’s accusations of corruption, leading many to suspect that Mugabe, who stayed quiet in public, had given his consent.

A new twist in the old game is the suggestion that Grace could succeed to the presidency, establishing a Mugabe dynasty.

She was recently made head of the party’s Women’s League, putting her in the politburo. She was also awarded a dodgy doctorate in sociology, based on two months’ study, from the University of Zimbabwe (from the hands of her husband).

And posters of her suddenly adorn public buses. At one rally she asked, “why shouldn’t I be president?”

But few think the former typist, without liberation-war credentials, is made of the right stuff. Countless nicknames attest to the popular distaste she evokes: Lady McGabe, DisGrace, First Shopper (for her free-spending habits in foreign capitals). Her recent speeches, seen as unsavoury, over-the-top and unworthy of a dignitary, have further tarnished her reputation.

While the vice-president has avoided responding to the allegations made against her, surrogates including war veteran leaders have returned fire, broadening the brawl. “This is the end game,” says Ibbo Mandaza, a prominent local analyst. But is it? On October 28 the president stepped back into the ring.

He lambasted his party, neither mentioning his wife nor protecting her, but calling for an end to “the war”. Taking charge, he brought forward a party congress in December by a week.

It will settle the senior line-up for the next five years.

The talk in Harare is of new rules for nominations to the politburo, even of an entirely new slate. The Justice minister, who is suspected of complicity in the first lady’s crusade, seems as damaged by the past few weeks’ infighting as the vice-president.

The president, meanwhile, looks and sounds in fine form for his age.

Regardless of who will be elevated or demoted, he has shown himself to be the ringmaster.

Everything must change so that all can remain the same—until the president’s clock runs out and he can no longer defuse the bombs he plants. Investors, who are desperately needed in the ailing economy, are disconcerted either way.

Under today’s regime, little can be trusted for long. Yet what comes after is even less clear. — Economist.

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