WHEN former first lady Grace Mugabe boasted at a rally in Kadoma in July 2015 that vice-presidents take notes each time they meet her, she demonstrated how much power she had acquired courtesy of being the president’s wife.
By Hazel Ndebele
She was perceived to be the power behind the throne. Grace had the audacity of giving orders to government officials despite not being in government. High-ranking officials would even kneel before her at public events.
But not in a million years would she have imagined that in 2017, the walls would come tumbling down.
Just a month before the soft coup by the military, which signalled her dramatic fall from grace, the former first lady boasted at the launch of the Empowerment Bank that she is the president’s wife and had no reason to kill the then vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa who claimed to have been poisoned.
“Why would I prepare one cup to kill Mnangagwa … I am a wife of the president. Who is Mnangagwa on this earth, who is he? … Why would I want to kill someone who was given a job by my husband. It is nonsensical,” Grace bragged.
Little did she know that the end was nigh and that all the power she had would dramatically disappear.
On November 14, army tanks rolled into Harare and secured strategic places such as the Munhumutapa Building, which houses the offices of the president and his deputies, as well as the Supreme Court, Parliament and the ate-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.
The military also advanced to Mugabe’s private residence where they held him hostage before descending on key G40 faction members in the wee hours of November 15.
Retired Lieutenant-General Sibusiso Moyo, now Foreign Affairs and International Trade minister, announced the army had stepped in to defuse a potential crisis. He insisted that the army had not effected a coup and would not harm Mugabe.
The military intervention kick-started processes which eventually led to Mugabe’s resignation and, with his downfall, Grace’s power evaporated into thin air.
The former first lady had over the years grown into a powerful politician while she also saw herself as a philanthropist.
She entered politics on a full-time basis in 2014 after being appointed secretary of the Zanu PF women’s league at the party congress.
Prior to her appointment she had embarked on a “meet-the-people tour” where she vilified former vice-president Joice Mujuru, accusing her of plotting to unseat her husband. As the head of the women’s league, Grace played an active role in the battle to succeed her husband.
At Grace’s instigation, Mujuru was expelled from Zanu PF alongside hundreds of her allies, among them the party’s secretary for administration Didymus Mutasa and spokesperson Joice Mujuru.
Mugabe appointed Mujuru’s long-time rival Emmerson Mnangagwa as vice-president, but Grace soon turned her guns on him.
Using close associates such as former higher education minister Jonathan Moyo and former political commissar Saviour Kasukuwere and the women’s league, Grace embarked on a vilification campaign targeting Mnangagwa, war veterans and their military allies.
Relations between the military and the first family soured as a result, prompting Mugabe to attack security officials for meddling in Zanu PF internal affairs at the party’s annual conference in Victoria Falls in December 2015.
Mugabe then met army commanders the same evening to defuse the tense situation, but tensions continued to grow mainly because of Grace’s incessant attacks on Mnangagwa and the military.
At a rally in Chiweshe, also in February, Grace claimed that the military wanted to kill her son Bellarmine and bomb her Alpha Omega dairy.
Mugabe again met army generals to discuss problems, fuelled by Grace’s attacks targeting the army.
In October, at a rally at Sakubva Stadium in Mutare, Grace said she was not afraid of being shot by Mnangagwa’s allies.
Her campaign against Mnangagwa escalated ahead of the party’s December extraordinary congress, where she led a campaign for the ouster from both the government and Zanu PF party of the former vice-president.
Indeed, Mugabe obliged and sent Mnangagwa packing. A process to boot out or limit the influence of his key allies such as Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa was put in motion. Many saw the development as a confirmation that Grace was indeed the power behind the throne.
It did not take the G40 faction long to influence the party’s provincial structures to declare that they wanted Grace to rise to the vice-presidency at the party’s congress.
Grace and her acolytes’ plan was progressing well until Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Constantino Chiwenga called Mugabe to order and directed him to stop the purges ahead of the extraordinary congress which was held last weekend.
Chiwenga warned that the military could “step in” to avert a threat to national security. He warned politicians to stop recklessly denigrating the military, in remarks seen as directed at Grace.
Law lecturer at Kent University in England Alex Magaisa said the statement by the military marked the end of an era.
“The last straw for most people within and outside Zanu PF was the increasingly evident possibility that Mugabe’s wife Grace was well on course to succeed him. That would have created a Mugabe dynasty. Many found the idea of a Mugabe dynasty extremely repulsive,” Magaisa said. “There might have been a residue of sympathy for Mugabe, but many were repulsed by Grace’s brand of politics. She was brash and condescending, with a penchant for humiliating adults in public. Many dreaded the prospect of her presidency.”
Political commentator Maxwell Saungweme said Grace’s ride to power was a bedroom coup.
“As we have said before, her ride to power was a bedroom coup and it was supposed to end the day it started. She is naturally a vacuous, heedless and unsophisticated personality whose speeches betrayed her naivety. Her fall tells us various lessons. One, that you can’t buy a PhD and pretend to act like a doctor when you never read books. Two, leadership is not an act of sexual transmission but serious learning,” said Saungweme.
“In politics you must never rope in your family to the extent of losing sense like Mugabe did with Grace. That one should never take succession planning for granted in politics to the extent of thinking that your soulmate can replace you and all will be accepted. Grace missed a lot of lessons from other first ladies who ended up being killed or arrested for trying to make a country’s governance a family issue. She is a loser whose crimes, including the assault of that girl in SA, must be brought to bear.”
Grace Mugabe also grew into a powerful businesswoman. But with her fall, her business empire is under threat.