During a state banquet in Pretoria, South Africa, in April 2015, I had a brief encounter with Grace Mugabe, the first lady of Zimbabwe. I was asking her husband, Robert Mugabe, about the question of her succeeding him as president. “She doesn’t have those ambitions,” began Mugabe, the spectacles perched on his nose reminiscent of an elderly librarian, a narrow moustache clinging to his upper lip like a caterpillar. Suddenly he interrupted himself with mock alarm: “Careful, there she comes!”
By David Smith
The frail 91-year-old, who increasingly resembles a hanger for his well-tailored suits, remained seated. I rose and turned to behold his 49-year-old wife, with her cropped hair and long black dress, lace hanging daintily at the wrist. Grace, who had been the subject of persistent gossip about a serious illness, was returning from an interlude on the dancefloor that delighted dinner guests.
“Hello, David Smith of the Guardian. We were just talking about you.”
“Oh, really? You were talking about me? But I’m dead, I’m a corpse,” she replied smiling. The reports about her ill-health had apparently been exaggerated.
“I just wanted to ask you if it’s true you might like to be president one day,” I asked.
Her hard features, which can resemble a mask with striking dark eyes and sculpted cheekbones, dissolved into a laugh. She did not deny it. “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
Just then a band struck up and I beat a retreat, past the glares of South African protocol mandarins, one of whom ordered me to leave, snarling: “I hope we never see you again.”
Few women in Africa provoke such fascination, or such loathing, as Grace Mugabe. Loyalists describe her as “Amai” (Mother), “The Lady of the Revelation” or, predictably, “Amazing Grace”, while detractors prefer “DisGrace”, “Gucci Grace” or “First Shopper”. There are reports that the couple have substantial foreign properties and multiple offshore bank accounts, Grace’s overseas shopping expeditions are legendary: she was widely reported to have spent £75,000 on luxury goods in one day in Paris in 2003, and to have taken 15 trolley-loads of purchases into the first-class lounge of Singapore airport. She has been forced to deny rumours that she has been unfaithful to the president and defends herself against accusations that she is pampered and lazy.
The four-decade age difference between her and her husband has invited urgent questions about what will happen to her after his death. She stands to lose the presidential credit card and possibly the luxurious mansion in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare. She has grown up in a country where proximity to power is no guarantee of survival, and knows how quickly loyalties can turn. Mugabe’s long years of cunning divide and conquer have left the ruling Zanu-PF party and the country without an obvious successor, creating an atmosphere among the ruling elite that seethes with mutual suspicion and treachery, and bitter factional divisions.
Grace had always appeared acquiescent, an adornment, mother of the president’s children. No one, until now, considered that she might have political ambitions. But late last year, the world met a new Grace Mugabe. Suddenly, without warning, she transformed from smiling president’s wife to political player in her own right. In early December, she was elevated to a senior role in Zanu-PF and confirmed as the new head of its women’s league. She then embarked on a national promotional trip, nicknamed the “Graceland tour”, flying across the country to attend a series of rallies, where she delivered tirades against her husband’s perceived enemies. At one of the rallies, Grace made her agenda clear. She declared: “They say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?”
Grace Mugabe makes her first political speech, at a rally in October 2014. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Grace Mugabe makes her first political speech, at a rally in October 2014. Photograph: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
The political establishment was rocked back on its heels. Ibbo Mandaza, a former civil servant who has known the president and his wife for years, said: “Grace was always sedate, sitting in the background looking beautiful. Then suddenly this woman is someone else you can’t recognise. She was uncouth, unbecoming.”
Part of the rebranding was her award of a PhD in sociology from the University of Zimbabwe in just three months – all the more remarkable because she reportedly once dropped out of a correspondence course at the University of London after failing most of the exams with marks as low as 7%. One academic said: “It’s an embarrassment to the university. Everybody here jokes about it. It made the university a laughing stock.”
She appeared to be carving out a political identity that would protect her against the loss of her husband. Having risen from selling chickens in her home village to working as a receptionist at State House and then becoming first lady, the prospect of losing everything was unthinkable. One political insider, who did not wish to be named, said: “The Mugabes are feeling cornered by time and circumstances. She comes across as this ambitious climber creating an image and it’s getting worse as she’s getting older. She’s experienced this massive wealth and doesn’t want to lose that.”
When Muammar Gaddafi was dragged from a drainpipe, beaten and sodomised with a bayonet in 2011, there was cause for sleepless nights in the bed chambers of many of Africa’s ossified dictators. If Libya’s self-anointed “King of Kings” could suffer such a lynching after four decades in power, what winds of change might blow the continent’s other strongmen off their pedestals and into the hands of a vengeful mob? No one, it seems, was more rattled by Gaddafi’s demise than Robert Mugabe, the oldest leader in the world. At the UN in 2012 he railed against the US and Nato for backing Libyan rebels: “The mission was strictly to protect civilians, but it turned out that there was a hunt, a brutal hunt, of Gaddafi and his family. In a very dishonest manner we saw … Chapter 7 [of the UN charter] being used now as a weapon to rout a whole family.”
At a rally a year later, Mugabe cited the fall of Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein and again swiped at the west: “All of them were killed and these nations are left in chaos as people fight among each other. Beware that is what they are seeking when you hear them speak of removing Mugabe because they say he is the impediment to our goals.”
Mugabe’s reference to Gaddafi’s family was no accident. The first lady, who turns 50 this month, has made enemies among the political elite and the general population; she and the couple’s three children may be vulnerable. Her son by a previous husband was last month convicted of manslaughter and fined the equivalent of £520 for running over and killing a man, which sparked protests at his lenient treatment. Grace’s abrupt emergence on the political stage last year can be seen as a frantic act of self-preservation. At one rally she inveighed against the then vice-president Joice Mujuru: “She has been telling people that once Mugabe dies, she will draw me close to her, and my secretaries told me that she will drag me in the streets, with people laughing while my flesh sticks on the tarmac.”
“Today Grace is viewed as an opportunistic, greedy, selfish, aggressive woman motivated by fear of her husband’s death,” said Andy Moyse, a veteran Zimbabwean journalist. “She’s going to be terribly exposed once he’s gone because there’s no political structure to save her. She’s trying to entrench her position and her assets.”
Robert Mugabe was already a political prisoner in Rhodesia when Grace Marufu was born in Benoni, South Africa. Like many Zimbabweans, Grace’s parents had crossed the border to look for employment. Her father, Johnston Marufu, worked in Johannesburg for several years. Grace, the youngest of five children, was five years old when the family left South Africa in 1970. In that time, she formed some impressions of the country’s apartheid regime, but her formative years were spent in rural Zimbabwe.
As a young girl, Grace lived in Sadza, a village in Mashonaland East province, 150km south of the capital, Harare. Even now the signs of its butcher, grocer and “bottle store” display the bold, unironic fonts of a bygone age. Maize grows in the garden of the modest white farmhouse Grace once shared with her aunt. Just in front of its barbed wire fence stands the primary school she attended. The building nestles amid ravishing green hills, but the dusty grounds where Grace once played now look tired, with washing hung out to dry and a concrete courtyard where flies buzz and chickens strut. The rudimentary classrooms have battered doors and dirty windows, yet their walls are hung with colourful cartoon illustrations of animals. The school has 739 pupils, aged from four to 15, and just 21 teachers.
Tapiwa Chengeta, 42, the deputy headteacher, complained that the school is starved of resources. “We have a room that could be a computer lab but no computers. We are still waiting for tar for the road.” Grace last visited, by helicopter, in June 2008 but has not provided any help. “It’s very difficult to put pressure on such a person,” Chengeta said.
Grace continued her education at St Francis of Assisi, a Catholic boarding secondary school in Madondo, close to her home. That institution bore the stamp of British colonialism, offering O- and A-levels. Its former headteacher, Stephen Chiurayi, 66, said Grace gained entry on merit, aged 14, but was there for less than a year because the school was burned down in 1979 during the bush war, in which Robert Mugabe led a guerrilla struggle against Rhodesia’s white minority rulers. This may have been a traumatising moment for the teenage Grace, but it did not appear to politicise her. The upheaval forced her to complete her schooling at Kriste Mambo High School in Rusape, Manicaland province. She then took a secretarial course at the Christian College of Southern Africa. Grace was still a teenager when she married Stanley Goreraza, an air force pilot, and 20 when she was recruited as a typist at State House, the seat of power in Harare. By then, her father had died, creating a vacuum in her life that would soon be filled in a most unexpected way.
Zimbabwe was the last African country to escape the yoke of British colonialism. Robert Mugabe was an intellectual who fought for black voting rights, and preached forgiveness long before Nelson Mandela emerged from prison. He was one of the most visionary figures in post-colonial politics and remains a giant in Africa, receiving ovations almost everywhere he goes on the continent. To many he is the embodiment of black pride, of achieving true psychological independence, of sticking two fingers up to the arrogant west.
Mugabe rose to power with quiet ruthlessness. At the racially inclusive Fort Hare University in South Africa he experienced a political awakening after encountering the African National Congress (ANC) youth league. He became a teacher in Ghana and, inspired by Kwame Nkrumah, who had led that country to independence, returned home in 1960 to what was then Rhodesia, where white settlers dominated politics and farmed the most fertile land. Mugabe was arrested for “subversive speech” and served a 10-year jail term, after which he fled to neighbouring Mozambique to lead guerrilla forces in a protracted war against Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith’s government. One veteran of the war of independence, which took place between 1964 and 1979, is Didymus Mutasa, who spent eight months with Mugabe behind bars. “He was an outstanding person among us,” he recalled. “When he went out to fight it glorified him more. He was the brains.”
For their part in bringing an end to the war and the start of independence, Mugabe and Lord Carrington, the British foreign secretary, were nominated jointly for the Nobel peace prize. As the new president of Zimbabwe, in 1980, Mugabe announced a policy of reconciliation and invited whites to help rebuild the country. In these early years Zimbabwe prospered, with booming agriculture, new hospitals and schools – the latter of which resulted in the highest literacy rate in Africa. With his eloquence, intellect and charm, Mugabe was such a darling of the west a blind eye was turned to his brutal crushing of an armed rebellion in the province of Matabeleland in the 1980s.
By the time the 20-year-old Grace came to work at State House in 1985, an aura of mastery surrounded Mugabe. “At the time I looked at him as a father figure,” she told interviewer Dali Tambo on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in 2013. “He just started talking to me, asking me about my life – were you married before, things like that. But I was just saying, ‘He’s my boss, he must ask.’ I didn’t know it was leading somewhere. I was quite a shy person, very shy.”
“She was very beautiful, pretty braids, sitting at the switchboard at State House,” said Ibbo Mandaza, who is now head of the Southern African Political and Economic Series Trust thinktank in Harare. “All the girls were attractive but Grace especially. I said, ‘Let’s go for lunch’, but someone said, ‘You’ll get in trouble.’” Then one day Mandaza noticed that Grace was pregnant. “And it clicked.”
Mugabe’s pursuit of the young secretary was kept quiet, for the perfectly simple reason that he was already married. He had met Sally Hayfron, a fellow teacher, in her native Ghana. They married in 1961 and had one child, Michael Nhamodzenyika, who died aged three from cerebral malaria. By then Mugabe was in jail in Rhodesia, and he was denied permission to attend his son’s funeral. Sally held a political role in the Zanu women’s league that she continued after independence, and set up a children’s health charity. She was greatly respected and loved; revered as the mother of the nation. According to the journalist Angus Shaw, Grace suffers by comparison: “Sally always had an ideological base. She appeared to be very committed to freedom and believed in a socialist ethic of equality. Grace has never shown that; she has shown greed. Sally was a modest person and didn’t yell like a Billingsgate fishwife.”
In her 50s, Sally became gravely ill with kidney disease, and was hospitalised for long periods, while her husband was conducting his affair with Grace. There was a painful, farcical episode when Grace gave birth to Mugabe’s daughter, Bona, and Mugabe had to shuttle between the maternity ward and his dying wife’s intensive care unit.
In the 2013 SABC interview, Tambo put it to Grace that Mugabe was still married to Sally when they got together. Grace admitted: “I felt a bit uncomfortable … He told me that they had discussed it and she was sort of agreeable … Of course she knew I was there, she knew the children were there, that’s what he told me. So I’m sure they had come to some agreement of some sort.”
According to Sally’s friend Margaret Dongo, Sally only discovered her husband’s adultery when word leaked that Grace was pregnant, in 1989. “She came to my house and said, ‘How could this happen?’ It hurt her. Inside her heart she cared, but being first lady she couldn’t stand on a rooftop and say this is what happened to me. She didn’t want to embarrass him. This would have been one of the most damaging things to his career … I would never forgive him because, to me, it was an indirect torture. It shows that element of cruelty in him.” Dongo’s verdict on Grace is scathing: “If Sally saw Grace today she would say, ‘God, let me go back quickly and rest in peace.’”
The affair was hushed up for as long as possible,but one night in the early 1990s Grace’s mother was admitted to a hospital in Harare while experiencing a psychotic episode. The head of state soon arrived on the scene. One witness recalls: “The entire presidential cavalcade came, which made people scared. Robert Mugabe and Grace arrived together. The affair was rumoured, but it was an extraordinarily well kept secret.”
Indeed, the news did not reach the wider public until three years after Sally’s death. The March/April 1995 issue of Horizon, then Zimbabwe’s top-selling lifestyle magazine, broke the story that Mugabe had paid lobola – bride price – to Grace’s family at the end of 1992, 11 months after Sally’s death. Andy Moyse, then publisher and editor of Horizon, said: “The issue sold out in about a day: we were printing 60,000 to 70,000 copies. It became the talk of the country and there was quite a lot of resentment towards Grace. It’s suggested that Sally had given her blessing but she had no choice: he was bonking Grace anyway.”
Grace is thought to have divorced Stanley Goreraza in the mid-1990s, after which he was assigned to China as defence attache. Another obstacle to the president’s happiness was swiftly taken care of. Mugabe was raised Roman Catholic – he is never without his rosary – and his church would not normally countenance a divorced mother remarrying. But the so-called “St Paul prerogative” was invoked. Grace had not been baptised prior to her wedding to Goreraza, so the elaborate argument went, and was therefore not a Christian at the time, so that marriage should not be recognised. She was duly baptised in 1996 ahead of a lavish wedding in Kutama, the Jesuit mission where Mugabe went to school. Mozambique’s president Joaquim Chissano, the best man, escorted the groom up the aisle.
Some 6,000 invited guests, including South African president Nelson Mandela, joined the celebration, and an estimated 40,000 citizens gathered to show their support. Pope John Paul II wished the couple “an abundance of divine joy”. The lavish banquet attracted some criticism at a time when drought had reportedly driven more than 100,000 Zimbabweans to the brink of starvation. The event cost an estimated $6.5m, with about $2m coming from state coffers.
The Mugabes take care to nurture the image of a happy couple: in the SABC interview, they took each other’s hands and expressed their love for one another. There was mirth around the family table as Grace rose to give the president a chaste kiss. Another glimpse of Mugabe family life appeared online last year with photos of their Christmas holiday in Singapore: Grace looking at an iPad with a glass of red wine; the teetotal Mugabe appearing somewhat disengaged as their children celebrated.
Still, there has been much conjecture about the first lady’s private life. One unconfirmed rumour has linked her to a businessman named Peter Pamire, who died in a car crash in 1997. There have also been suggestions of a relationship with the governor of the reserve bank, which she has publicly denied.
A 2007 diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Harare, published by WikiLeaks, stated: “Within the last year, it was rumoured (unconfirmed) she had fled to east Asia and that her husband travelled there to convince her to return to Zimbabwe … Grace has few friends, even within the Mugabe family … Grace’s primary personal interest appears to be shopping; she reportedly spends large amounts of forex on her infrequent trips to Asia. In Zimbabwe, she makes contributions to women’s cooperatives.” The cable concluded: “We believe Grace has little or no political influence over her husband. She is concerned about her children and would seek to influence the president to act in ways that would benefit or protect them.”
At this time Grace appeared content in a role typical of first ladies in Africa: the demure companion at her husband’s side. There was little hint of ambition. One acquaintance, who did not wish to be named, said bluntly: “When she’s out of her depth, she’s aware of her intellectual inferiority. If someone would talk about a subject at a committee meeting and reach a decision, five minutes later she would bring it up again … She had strong opinions and didn’t hear what people were saying. I had a strong feeling that she was almost trying to make herself a royal figure, slightly distanced from the hoi polloi. She’s been quite good at reinventing herself.”
Grace has certainly made efforts to correct her public image. “I’m not really what they say I am,” she declared in a TV interview two years ago. “And I’m actually surprised to hear some of the things they say: that she’s a very lazy person, she’s always eating. I work so hard I have no time to pamper myself.”
Trudy Stevenson, the Zimbabwean ambassador to Senegal, said: “You know all the rumours but I have to tell you she has certainly improved herself enormously and can hold her own with the best of them. She has very strong opinions on all sorts of things and she’s very happy to debate those opinions.
Grace, meanwhile, has cultivated an image as a philanthropist, perhaps conscious of the previous first lady’s achievements in this area. She has opened an orphanage in Mazowe, outside Harare, where an imposing security gate and bell tower are visible to passing motorists amid the rolling countryside. Andy Moyse said: “Grace has done this orphanage to outdo Sally. It’s a political thing: people will compare her and Sally and she needs to have some credibility.”
“People are terrified of her: when she’s coming to a place, that place gets transformed,” said an acquaintance. “There’s no shortage of money when she’s coming to town. She does have a good sense of humour but if you say the wrong thing she might have your head chopped off, so be circumspect.”
There are people in Zimbabwe who have never forgiven Mugabe for betraying his first wife. Some also believe that without Sally’s guiding force, he became politically and morally lost. According to Angus Shaw: “Sally was regarded as a decent woman. The consensus view is she could have kept Mugabe more on the rails.”
In the early days of the 21st century, the ground began shifting under the Mugabes’ feet. Mobs of self-styled war veterans seized farms with the government’s blessing in what was billed as an attempt to correct the colonialist legacy that left immense tracts of land in the hands of a shameless white minority. Many saw it as a crude attempt to isolate the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) which enjoyed support among white farmers and black farm workers.
In a wave of vicious attacks, both landowners and their long-time managers and farm hands were killed, beaten or chased away and the properties taken over by Zanu-PF cronies or citizens, many of whom lacked the skills or capital to farm. The world was transfixed by images of farm buildings ablaze and acts of truly horrific violence. In the eyes of many, the party that had brought liberation and hope to Zimbabwe was now irredeemably corrupt and motivated by self-enrichment and power at all costs. That transformation reflected more on Mugabe than anyone else. Food production imploded and one of Africa’s strongest economies shrank to half the size it had been in 1980. Later, record hyperinflation would render supermarket shelves bare and the national currency worthless. In a region of fertile land with probably the most pleasant climate on earth, 10% of the population have fled to neighbouring countries in penury, hunger and fear.
From 1999 Mugabe faced an unprecedented challenge. He clung to power through a series of hotly disputed elections, culminating in 2008 when he lost the first round to MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. It was the first potential “Gaddafi moment” when the Mugabes could have found themselves suddenly stripped of their invincibility. Instead, Zanu-PF triggered an explosion of political violence in which more than 200 people were killed and many more tortured. Mugabe displayed political genius by inviting the MDC into a power-sharing agreement in September 2008 by which he remained president and Tsvangirai was appointed prime minister. It is now widely held that he outmanoeuvred Tsvangirai brilliantly, conceding few real powers and distracting the MDC from the next election, which it lost heavily. In 2009, Tsvangirai’s wife Susan was killed in a car crash. The prime minister accepted that it was an accident, but the tragedy was another reminder to Grace of the fragility of existence.
After allegations of violence and vote-rigging, Mugabe, once the shining star of Africa, became an international pariah – assets belonging to Mugabe and Grace have been frozen and both have been subject to an EU travel ban – yet they emerged from the chaos unscathed, smiling, and rich. Opponents had been beaten or seduced while the west had been faced down. The first couple are now said to be the biggest landowners in the country after acquiring farms spanning thousands of acres, one of which Grace used to set up a dairy. A 2008 diplomatic cable from then US ambassador James McGee reported that Grace was said to be among “a small group of high-ranking Zimbabwean officials who have been extracting tremendous diamond profits” from the country’s mines.
She’s been an unmitigated disaster as first lady and I fear for her safety once her husband is no longer in his position
Since she stepped into the limelight, Grace’s popularity has taken a battering. MP Eddie Cross, 75, the MDC’s secretary for local government, said: “She’s arrogant and greedy, a very nasty woman. I don’t think she has any redeeming features; the contrast with Sally could not be greater. She’s been an unmitigated disaster as first lady and I really fear for her safety once her husband is no longer in his current position.”
At one of her firebrand political rallies late last year, dressed in colourful regalia including an elaborate headwrap featuring her husband’s image, Grace jabbed an angry finger and accused Joice Mujuru of plotting to assassinate Robert Mugabe. Mujuru had been his deputy for many years and was the favourite to take over when he dies. Nevertheless, Grace brought Mujuru down, accusing her of witchcraft, murder plots and indecent behaviour. She proclaimed that if Mujuru were killed, “dogs and fleas would not disturb her carcass”. Mujuru was ousted from her position as vice-president in December last year, and this March, expelled from the party.
A former guerrilla fighter with the nom-de-guerre Teurai Ropa (spill blood), Mujuru refused to trade insults with Grace. She responded: “We are not of the same background so our understanding is totally different. You can’t blame someone when you have no understanding who she is. I leave it to herself and the people of Zimbabwe to judge her. She was a first lady housewife. I was vice-president with a fully fledged financial office. I wouldn’t spend much time with housewives. I only saw her interested in politics last year. I had not seen her as politically minded herself: she was first lady. For the first few years she told us she wasn’t interested.”
Mujuru, whose husband Solomon, a former army chief, died in an unexplained farmhouse fire in 2011, vehemently denies plotting to kill the president and said she appealed to Mugabe in person three times last year. “I’m so shocked a man of his calibre believes such lies. You work with someone such a long time and you don’t know him.” Among the old guard cast into the wilderness with Mujuru was Mugabe’s former friend from the independence struggle, Didymus Mutasa. He has known Mugabe since 1972 and regards Grace as a wrecking ball: “The words she uttered against Mrs Mujuru are not words any leader with respect would say about another woman … Joice Mujuru will be our next president come any election. Those who now call themselves Zanu-PF have no following and no one wants to see them today.”
Mujuru’s long-time rival Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as “the crocodile” – became vice-president late last year, but officials have played down the idea that he is the heir apparent. Does that leave the way open for Grace? Mutasa, who is now 79, said: “That has been said to a great extent, particularly in Zanu-PF. There was a rumour that the president made a request to the current Zanu-PF hierarchy to assist the first lady to take over from him. I don’t know the response but I don’t think any of the current leaders would accept it. It’s totally un-African.”
Rugare Gumbo, 75, who was formerly Zanu-PF’s spokesperson, a politician who has known Mugabe for half a century, said: “Under an erratic woman, Mugabe’s legacy has been destroyed. The party has been destroyed. The liberation legacy has been destroyed. She’s young, she’s beautiful and the old man is charmed by that. He can’t say anything.”
Some have compared Grace to Jiang Qing, the third wife of Mao Zedong. An essay by political analyst William Muchayi, published last year, points out that both were secretaries who began affairs with older, married men. Both struggled to gain public acceptance, sought to exploit their husbands’ reputations and turned crises in their political parties into personal opportunities. Muchayi pointed out that Jiang attempted to seize power after her husband’s death, only to be arrested a month later and sentenced to death – her punishment was later reduced to a life sentence but she eventually committed suicide in prison.
Even at 91, Robert Mugabe does not appear in imminent mortal danger. He walks without the aid of a stick and still possesses an easy charisma evocative of the first generation of post-independence African leaders. But he cannot go on forever. Zimbabwe stands at the edge of the precipice and Grace Mugabe is determined not to fall. To avoid a diabolical end at the hands of a mob, she is capable of anything.
• Follow the Guardian long read on Twitter: @gdnlongread. This article was first published in The Guardian (UK)