“They say that I want to be president!,” First Lady Grace Mugabe said while addressing supporters at a Zanu-PF rally. An outburst followed, “Why not? Am I not Zimbabwean?” When it comes to unbewacht rhetorik — gladiatorial and unhinged rhetoric, the president’s wife doesn’t disappoint. It’s her style of politics. However, this statement seems to have contributed to the birth of a startling theory: The First Lady wants to remain in the State House, this time not as a spouse, but as president.
Simukai Tinhu Political Analyst
This idea sounds so improbable. But, widely read international print media platforms, such as the Guardian, has greatly assisted in hardening this myth into received opinion. For example, in his article, suggestively titled Don’t mess with Grace Mugabe; she could be Zimbabwe’s next president, David Smith convincingly suggests that Grace “…is capable of anything.” Such a charge by an acute observer seem to have set precedence, particularly for the local press, which now seem to be seriously considering the idea of a Grace as an independent political force capable of assuming her husband’s political mantle.
Reactions to purported ambitions
When the rumours started circulating, the nation’s initial response indicates how this proposition was considered preposterous. Would-be voters were largely dismissive. Equally, the intellectual community greeted the idea with disdain and saw it as divorced from reality, prompting Grace to protest that some people think that she is mad.
But the reaction has since transitioned into a serious phase, with the proposition insinuating itself into the minds of some voters. Indeed, this time, some vague semblance of a strategy is being talked about. Reportedly, she has partnered with an ambitious group of young politicians; the so-called Generation 40 (G40) associated with Higher Education minister Jonathan Moyo. This group is being seen as pushing for Grace as a replacement for her husband.
In a wide ranging interview with the state-owned Sunday Mail, Grace denied having an interest in succeeding her husband. Even her husband President Robert Mugabe has since stepped in, telling the nation that his wife will not succeed him. Why, then has this barb remained with the First Lady?
Succession as a dominant discourse
It is common knowledge that Zanu-PF is currently heavily invested in succession politics. Unfortunately, for Grace, she has strayed into politics at a time when Zanu-PF has descended into the world of succession politics and she has been sucked in it. In other words, talk of the First Lady having an interest in succeeding her husband is simply a reflection of an issue dominating political discourse in Zimbabwe.
Indeed, this obsession with succession politics has seen equally less desirable characters being thrown into the fray of those who are fighting to take over Mugabe’s job; Sydney Sekeramayi, Saviour Kasukuwere and Gideon Gono, amongst many. But, having played a leading role in the succession matrix through the removal of Joice Mujuru as vice-president and also as the powerful wife of a president who is reluctant to name a successor, it is not surprising that many have concluded that Grace is now one of the leading candidates to land the nation’s first job.
Grace is not endowed with grace and diplomacy when it comes to politics. She has uttered political statements that often times have far-reaching implications than what she intends. This reflects on her intelligence rather than her intentions or ambitions. For example, in July, she told thousands of supporters that when it comes to matters concerning how they should run their offices, vice-presidents Phelekezela Mphoko and Emmerson Mnangagwa consult and take notes from her. Such ill-thought utterances have helped fuel the misplaced thinking that the First Lady has her eyes set on the presidency.
Severe bootlicking behaviour by senior Zanu PF officials has not helped the First Lady’s situation. Who can forget the images of Ignatius Chombo, the Minister of Home Affairs, going down all two before Grace. Such bizarre forms of “respect” are usually reserved for Mugabe. Also, recently on an incident that many interpreted as a sign of the First Lady’s growing authority, Mphoko introduced her at the Chimanimani political rally last week. This was unprecedented. Seniority wise, Grace is the leader of the Zanu PF Women’s League, a wing of the party, and Mphoko is the vice-president of the party. She is therefore junior to the vice-president. In other words, in terms of the long standing Zanu PF protocol, introductions should have been the other way round. A concatenation of these rather bizarre political actions and events, explains why some see Grace presidency as inevitable.
But, if she has no intention of being president, as she and her husband have explicitly said in public, then why is she acting as if she gunning for the presidency?
Is she a part of G40?
Grace’s political career is a project crafted by Mugabe, partly to satisfy his wife’s impulses, but also specifically to destroy Mujuru, a job that Grace executed with efficiency. This success transformed her standing in the party. The First Lady immediately became a political colossus, but one without another mission.
With her impulses having been long suppressed by her position as the spouse of the country’s leader, Grace appeared to have thoroughly enjoyed her stint as Mujuru’s destroyer. She was determined to find another mission to satisfy her inner impulses.
Luckily for her, a king always has an evil troll in his entourage. This time, it’s in the form of Mnangagwa. Allegations of Mnangagwa’s ambitions have presented a ready made role for her. Moyo, a masterful manipulator, has stepped in to join her in that role, creating a Hansel and Gretel partnership; a duo designed to deal with the evil witch, Mnangagwa.
Moyo seems to have a grudge against Mnangagwa. Reportedly, he is still smarting from the fallout from the Tsholotsho declaration, in which the vice-president, having enlisted the help of the professor, clandestinely attempted to position himself as Mugabe’s successor who later abandoned his allies when the deal collapsed. Moyo wants to derail Mnangagwa’s ambitions as revenge for not protecting him from the purge that followed this debacle and the fallout after that. Also, an important figure in one of the factions positioning itself to succeed the president, Grace is allegedly being used by Moyo for the ends of the Young Turks or Generation 40 (G40). This unwritten partnership explains G40’s sometimes hysterical support for Grace.
Protecting her economic interest
During her time as the First Lady, Grace Mugabe has assembled a cluster of businesses meant to keep her going in the post-Mugabe era. Patronage, in particular, loans from state-owned banks or banks in which the state or Zanu officials have interests have kept the businesses afloat. Allegedly, some of the money has been used to do shopping, initially in Paris and London, but later on in the Fast East; Hong Kong and Singapore
Indeed, unlike Jackie Kennedy and Anne-Aymone Giscard d’Estaing, presidents’ spouses who had the luxury of lapsing into the comfort of their fiercely wealthy dynasties, after death or defeat in elections of their husbands, Grace is very much aware of the vulnerability of her sources of income.
The vagaries of her background, with no patrician upbringing and its associated princely old money and legitimately acquired mansions and castles, she has to ensure that she carves up a political space for herself to secure the luxury that she is now used to as the president’s wife. Otherwise, that gold necklace or brooch from Cartier will be a thing of the past.
The First Lady needs political allies who will not only ensure a continued free flow of resources, but also her physical safety and the safety of her children. Her reference to Mujuru’s alleged threats to do a Qaddafi-style on her and her family shows the extent of her fears.
Poor Grace. This is a woman trapped in the structures of her husband’s age and inevitable mortality. Indeed, the First Lady’s erratic and sometimes incomprehensible behaviour on the political scene, rather than being seen as ambition, should be interpreted as behaviours of a woman who is in fact falling apart — grieving prematurely the death of her husband and worried about the potential loss of her lifestyle and power.
The President’s problem
The position that Grace took, that of the leader of the Zanu PF Women’s League, was at the instigation and with the blessings of her husband, the president. Being a leader of this powerful faction in Zanu PF, is an important job, which requires considerable political experience. Grace had already indicated that she wanted the position. Despite zero experience, Mugabe had no choice other than to grant his wife her wishes. Due to his failing health and advanced age, Grace has increasingly become indispensable to the president’s personal welfare.
Mugabe’s failure to restrain his wife from her damaging political style illustrates the problem. Instead of acting as the ultimate party boss, president is acting as a powerless husband. And he is just doing what a powerless husband does; being an enabler, encouraging the wife to follow her impulses no matter how dangerous they are, in exchange for household social protection — caring and administering dozens of prescriptions each morning. This has left the president in a bind. Instead of telling her the hard truths and things that she might not want to hear about her politics, the president now fiercely defends her. “No-one can stop my wife,” the president said before the Chimanimani rally last week. In his novel, Women, Charles Bukowski warns us that many powerful men have been put under the bridge by women.
The president now depends on his wife more than any other figure, and his wife’s political posturing might mark the real beginning of the decline of the nonagenarian. Thus, instead of worrying about a Grace presidency, an ambition that should be filed under the “Fantasy”cabinet drawers, the nation should be concerned about Grace’s early morning whisperings into the nonagenarian’s ears as she administers all that medication and care, hold reassuringly those trembling hands and apply ice packs to sooth pain on the head, back and other undesirable places.
Grace not going to be President.
Fantasies about public figures are inevitable, and the seasonal one is that Grace has a good shot at being president. Indeed, even buzz phrases such as “Munhu wese kuna amai”, which apparently are behind Grace’s campaign have since been devised.
While useful as a summertime distraction, talk of a Grace presidency has the unfortunate defect of not meaning anything. Grace is an image of her husband. That is the only coherent thing about her support and source of power.
Once the unwieldy nonagenarian departs from the political scene, the First Lady’s authority will immediately evaporate. Or to put it differently, Grace is the president’s biography; when one story ends, so does the other. When the inevitable finally takes its hold on the president, it will take with it, its shadow, Grace. This explains why the First Lady’s adversaries are not panicking. Grace’s political career is surviving on borrowed time.
Tinhu is a Zimbabwean political analyst based in London.