Zimbabwe’s first lady Grace Mugabe, a polarising figure, has gradually positioned herself as a potential successor to her 93-year-old husband Robert as president when he dies or steps down.
Once a quiet figure known for her shopping and her charity work, she now has a high-profile role in the ruling Zanu-PF party as the head of its women’s league. She has been instrumental in the ousting of several alternative potential successors to her husband’s presidency.
Her main rival, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, was accused of disloyalty and sacked in early November 2017.
Mrs Mugabe has won key party members’ support – including her husband’s – for succeeding him to the vice-presidency.
Mr Mnangagawa later fled Zimbabwe, but one week later members of the military seized state TV and reportedly put Robert Mugabe under house arrest, in a move widely interpreted as a potential bid to replace him with the ousted Mr Mnangagwa.
At 52, Mrs Mugabe is four decades younger than her 93-year-old husband, the world’s oldest ruler, who has governed Zimbabwe since the end of white-minority rule in 1980.
His party has nominated him to stand for re-election next year, but there are continuing concerns about his health after he made several medical trips abroad.
Mrs Mugabe has always been a staunch supporter of her husband – earlier this year she memorably said that he could even win votes as a corpse.
She has not denied wanting to take the helm of the country, and at a 2014 rally she said: “They say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?”
Who is Grace Mugabe?
- Began affair with Robert Mugabe, 41 years her senior, while working as a typist in state house
- Mr Mugabe was still married to his first wife, Sally, who was terminally ill at the time
- Married Mr Mugabe, her second husband, in 1996 in an extravagant ceremony
- They have three children – Bona, Robert and Chatunga
- Nicknamed “Gucci Grace” by her critics who accuse her of lavish spending
- Named head of Zanu-PF women’s league in 2014, had been tipped to be named vice-president in December
- Accused of assaulting a model in South Africa in 2017
Political opponents have warned against a dynasty taking shape, and she has been criticised for seeking to use her diplomatic immunity when accused of assaulting a 20-year-old South African model with an electrical plug. This was not the first time she had been accused of physical assault.
Along with her husband, Mrs Mugabe is subject to EU and US sanctions, including travel bans, imposed over the seizure of land and accusations of rigged elections and crackdowns on political opposition.
The rise of Grace Mugabe
President Mugabe began wooing Grace Marufu while she was working as a young typist in the country’s state house. The two began an affair while he was married to his terminally ill first wife, Sally.
“He came to me and started asking about my family,” she said in a rare interview about their first encounter in the late 1980s.
“I looked at him as a father figure. I did not think he would at all look at me and say: ‘I like that girl.’ I least expected that.”
Mr Mugabe has said Sally did give her consent to the union before she died in 1992 – though he did not marry Grace until four years later.
The couple have three children: Bona, Robert and Chatunga.
Occasionally referred to as “Gucci Grace”, Mrs Mugabe has been criticised by some for an alleged appetite for extravagant shopping.
The first family have vast properties, businesses and farms dotted around the country, mainly in the rich western and northern Mashonaland provinces.
Over the years Mrs Mugabe has attempted to grow herself into a powerful businesswoman and sees herself as a philanthropist, founding an orphanage on a farm just outside the capital, Harare, with the help of Chinese funding.
She controversially earned a PhD in sociology from the University of Zimbabwe in just two months in 2014, although her thesis, unlike those of other students, was never filed and has never been made available.
Nevertheless her doctorate title was used on campaign material as she prepared to take over the leadership of the Zanu-PF women’s wing.
Since becoming more active in politics, she has become known for her sharp tongue and tough reputation. Pulling no punches while attacking political opponents, Mrs Mugabe often fiercely defends her husband.
She has been accused of washing the ruling party’s dirty linen in public by calling on people to resign or apologise.
Grace v her husband’s deputies
Mrs Mugabe spearheaded the ousting of a former ally, then-Vice-President Joice Mujuru, in 2014.
She said the vice-president should be sacked from government because she was “corrupt, an extortionist, incompetent, a gossiper, a liar and ungrateful”, and accused her of collaborating with opposition forces and white people to undermine the country’s post-independence gains.
A few months later Mrs Mujuru was expelled from Zanu-PF. She remains a leader of the opposition National People’s Party (NPP) and is spearheading a People’s Rainbow Coalition (PRC), urging people to register to vote to prevent the perpetual rule of Mr Mugabe and his wife.
The new vice-president was Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former justice minister who Mrs Mugabe had called “loyal and disciplined”. But by 2017, Mrs Mugabe was publicly calling on her husband to remove Mr Mnangagwa. She suggested that his supporters were planning a coup.
When he fell ill at a rally and had to be airlifted out of the country for treatment, his supporters blamed poison administered through ice cream from Mrs Mugabe’s dairy farm, a suggestion she denied.
He later said he had been poisoned, but it was “false and malicious” to suggest it was at the hands of the first lady.
In November, Mr Mugabe sacked Mr Mnangagwa. The country’s information minister said the vice-president had “exhibited traits of disloyalty”. Mr Mnangagwa subsequently fled the country.