NEVER in her wildest dreams when she was growing up in a dusty rural Chivu village with her mother while her father was an immigrant worker in apartheid South Africa would First Lady Grace Mugabe — who turned 50 yesterday — have imagined living in such spectacular opulence; wielding so much power and influence across society.
Even though the wildest dreams have to start somewhere as Oprah Winfrey once said, it would have been unimaginable for Grace to have fancied herself as the wife of such a famous — some say infamous — historic figure like President Robert Mugabe with whom she now shares a life and by association exercises vast political control over the ruling Zanu PF and its government.
“Allow yourself the time and space to let your mind wander and your imagination fly,” Winfrey said, but even then Grace would have been dismissed as a daydreamer if she thought of herself moving from rural huts to futuristic-looking Gracelands, symbolised by her Borrowdale Brooke mansion — the Blue Roof as they call it.
Watch Zimbabweans think of First Lady Grace Mugabe below:
That is why the plot of her dramatic rise — with all the attendant good, bad and ugly scenes — and a potentially stagy denouement is material for a gripping Hollywood movie script that would leave even the most prolific scriptwriters green with envy.
Behind every great man is a great woman, as they say. Such women are usually interesting, particularly if they are wives of some of the world’s most notorious dictators. For dictators are very fascinating political creatures, not least because of their eccentric worldviews and idiosyncrasies.
In good times and in bad, the ladies of dictators in kleptocracies have had to put up with a lot: venality, corruption, repression, uprisings, and often mistresses.
Yet some embody good and use their positions to advocate progressive changes and philanthropic causes, while others personify greed and evil.
Grace seems to embrace all of this: she is involved in charity work, pursues good humanitarian causes and social work, while she is also enjoying the trappings of power; being a bling-bling fashionista, shopaholic and Marie Antoinette personified.
Grace has also now become an active political animal as she begins to entertain ambitions of succeeding Mugabe, something she never dreamt of even when she married her husband — 41 years her elder — in 1996. At the time Grace made it clear she would not be involved in politics.
Although Mugabe during a state visit to South Africa in April insisted “she doesn’t have those ambitions”, her beaming response to the question whether or not she has presidential ambitions from Britain’s Guardian journalist David Smith, saying “I don’t know, I don’t know” was far more telling.
This, coupled with what is currently going on in Zanu PF over Mugabe’s succession, seems to suggest Grace is not only entertaining the idea of succeeding her husband and establishing dynastic rule but is now increasingly interested in the top job.
If she were to end up as president, that would complete an incredible story with an intriguing plot and sub-plots: a vendor rising from the streets to the top, a typist charming her way to State House or a determined dreamer worming her way to highest office in the land.
When Grace joined the Office of President and Cabinet — the highest work place in Zimbabwe — in the mid-1980s straight from college after completing a secretarial course, she would never have imagined that a time would come when the country’s most powerful men and women would grovel before her and sing praises, or that the mere mention of her name would leave many quacking in their boots.
Such is now her leverage that even veteran liberation war protagonists like Vice-Presidents Emmerson Mnangagwa and Phelekezela Mphoko report to her as she recently publicly boasted even though she has no formal executive authority. A remarkable feat indeed for someone who joined government as a mere typist with a hawking background.
Grace now seems omnipotent; omnipresent too. She has even acquired a dubious PhD from the University of Zimbabwe to suggest omniscience and perhaps reinforce her credentials as she prepares for the top job. Her PhD scandal demonstrates ambition and abuse of power.
However, until events preceding Zanu PF’s congress last December Grace did not appear to be anything more than a presidential housewife whose main occupation is caring for family, running household affairs and doing housework.
In fact, she appeared like a trophy wife — a young, attractive spouse regarded as a status symbol for an older man — fascinated by fashion, shopping and foreign travel.
However, Grace displayed the other side of her personality in the run up to the high-stakes congress where former Vice-President Joice Mujuru appeared set to consolidate her position as Mugabe’s shoo-in successor.
Since Grace and Mujuru were like oil and water, the former had to come out and fight for her life. Grace pulled out all the stops to shipwreck Mujuru’s succession bid, while protecting her personal, family and political interests. By so doing, she certainly changed the course of Mugabe’s succession and perhaps history too.
As she turned 50 yesterday, Grace would have been on top of the world, looking back and pinching herself over her incredible rags-to-riches and power story. For a moment she would almost completely forget problems that have come with her rise to fame and fortune.
It is unavoidable though that sometimes Grace has had to deal with gloomy and depressing situations that go along with her ivory tower life in which she lives in a state of privileged seclusion or detachment from the harsh inevitabilities of the real world.
Born in Benoni, Johannesburg, South Africa, on July 23 1965, she was named Grace Ntombizodwa Marufu by her parents who hailed from Chivu in Mashonaland East province.
She lived there for five years and came to Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was known under British colonial rule) in 1970. She then lived with her mother in rural Chivu while her father remained in South Africa.
Grace, the fourth born in a family of five, did her primary education in Chivu before proceeding to her secondary education at Kriste Mambo School, a catholic school in Rusape, Manicaland.
After studying for a top-drawer secretarial course, she landed a job in the mid- 1980s in the President’s Office typing pool.
At the time she was already married to Stanley Goreraza, a pilot with the Air Force of Zimbabwe whom relatives this week described as quiet and reserved.
According to family members who spoke to the Zimbabwe Independent this week, Grace and Goreraza lived a simple life like most ordinary people in the townships. At one time, the young couple stayed in the high density suburb of Mufakose in Harare, along Rovambira Street.
Apparently, Goreraza was officially posted away after Mugabe took his wife, Grace, to serve as a military attaché, first in China and now in India.
Goreraza’s interaction with Mugabe has been problematic as shown by the complications that arose when Russell wedded in 2010. He was effectively banned from his son’s wedding as the president reportedly could not attend if he was there. During the subsistence of their rather troubled marriage, the couple had a son, Russell, who of late has turned out to be quite a problem child for the First Family.
Despite his mother’s efforts to help him with things like farming and other business activities, and social life, he has been embroiled in controversies, from the bars to State House, or the Blue Roof.
Those close to the Mugabe family say Russell has indeed been a problem child — particularly difficult to raise, especially due to his claimed disruptive or anti-social behaviour. Those close to them talk of him fighting in nightclubs and arriving home very late, bulldozing Mugabe’s security and imposing his whims.
However, Grace is said to have always been protective and wanted the best for her first born. In 2010 she helped arrange his lavish wedding to Gladys Chiwaya, but the marriage has since collapsed after he filed for divorce.
Those close to Russell speak of a jovial but troubled young man. He was involved in a road traffic accident in February along Samora Machel Avenue in Harare’s CBD in which an unidentified man was killed. The state alleged that he was speeding and failed to control his BMW. He spent a night in police cells at Rhodesville police station and was fined US$800 or two months’ jail for the offence.
Grace’s marriage to Mugabe and her relationship with her original in-laws seems difficult. During Russell’s wedding, it was said the Goreraza family was barred from attending their son’s big day despite buses having been hired to ferry people from his father’s rural Chihota home and a lot of gifts brought.
The family is said to have never forgiven her for that, although they are afraid to speak out against her. Her former husband is also said to be bitter about the issue.
Grace’s and her initial in-laws’ relationship was sour over how her marriage to Goreraza broke down in acrimony, leaving a cloud of lingering bitterness.
Grace had gone on to engage in an adulterous affair with Mugabe when he was still married to his first wife, Sally, something which precipitated the collapse of her marriage to Goreraza.
However, Grace has apparently cited physical and emotional abuse as the reasons for the marriage’s collapse, not adultery. She says at first she was a bit uncomfortable about getting into a relationship with Mugabe, while his first wife Sally was terminally ill. So she had to discuss the issue with her sisters.
Sally died in 1992 of a kidney failure, two years after the birth of Mugabe and Grace’s first child, Bona. The two have three children, Bona, Robert (Jnr) born shortly after Sally died, and Chatunga.
The marriage was formalised in 1996 at a lavish wedding in Mugabe’s rural home of Zvimba at Kutama mission, which was attended by thousands of invited and uninvited guests who swarmed the Roman Catholic mission — 80kms west of Harare — where Mugabe was educated. The wedding, graced by all sorts of dignitaries including Nelson Mandela, went on all weekend of August 17-18.
Grace’s relative, who spoke at the ceremony, dubbed it “wedding of the century”, saying his relative was “at the right place at the right time” to steal Mugabe’s heart.
The best man was former Mozambique president Joaquim Chissano. Independent estimates suggest it cost US$1,1 million. Official estimates said 40 000 people attended, though some put the figure at 15 000.
However, even before the marriage was solemnised insiders say Grace had a reputation of ordering government officers to do her bidding. She would accompany Mugabe on official trips abroad, but would be listed as one of his secretaries and booked at the same hotel as Mugabe, away from other state officials.
Because of the initial secrecy surrounding the relationship those who were not in the know would try to chat her up, only to be given a cold shoulder or ominously warned by state security agents or his aides to stay away from her, or else.
Despite having caught Mugabe’s eye and given birth to his children, decades after his first born son with Sally Nhamodzenyika died in Ghana in 1966, Grace’s insecurity due to other women was evident throughout the 1990s, insiders say.
It is said on many occasions women were warned by state security agents not to get too close to Mugabe, otherwise they would provoke and suffer Grace’s wrath.
But it has not all been rosy for Grace despite her meteoric rise.
She has had to endure serious problems, mainly speculations and rumours of infidelity. From the death of Harare businessman Peter Pamire in the 1990s to the James Makamba saga, her name had always featured in controversies with all sorts of stories of adultery and resultant marriage turbulence with Mugabe. None of these stories though have ever been proved.
Grace has also been entangled in dodgy business activities, including farm seizures, mining and transport deals. Her family reportedly has over 10 farms and its land grabs have almost ruined agro-producer Interfresh’s Mazoe Citrus Estate.
Grace is now building an empire in Mazoe where she is constructing an opulent three-storey mansion at Mapfeni Farm, opposite her orphanage and the Amai Mugabe Junior School where she evicted close to 300 families in 2012.
That’s not all. Her family has also been fighting a Taiwanese tycoon over a disputed Hong Kong mansion, following a trucks deal that went bad.
While most her actions have been damaging to her reputation and Mugabe’s, the way she acquired her PhD mostly tarnished their images. It was likened to how Romanian First Lady Elena Ceausescu, executed in 1989 together with her communist dictator husband Nicolae Ceausescu, obtained her own PhD.
There are parallels between Elena and Grace’s political careers. Despite all these storms about her life, Grace has also shown she is tender-hearted.
Even though cynics will say that is what all dictators’ wives do all over the world to boost their profiles, Grace has shown that she is easily moved to love, pity, or sorrow – compassionate – through her humanitarian projects and donations.
She is involved in a lot of charities, showing she is genuinely affected by the realities of life, finds joy in the quiet, easygoing and positive things and is deeply hurt by the opposite even if her benevolence may have been overshadowed by her vicious brutality towards Mujuru.
After all has been said and done, time will tell where she will end: in power, or falling from grace to grass, especially after Mugabe is long gone.