ZIMBABWE’S ruling party’s women’s league has picked president Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace to be its new head in an appointment that will cement his hold on power – even after he dies.
Grace Mugabe, 49, was the only candidate for the post which now guarantees her a seat on her husband’s Soviet-style politburo, Zanu-PF’s top decision-making body.
The former State House typist appeared nervous as she delivered her acceptance speech in front of Mugabe late on Friday, telling him and the 4,000 delegates gathered for the women’s league elections in Harare that she would “work for the nation”.
“I know that you’ll be there for me,” she said. “You’ll teach me as we go and I know if I make mistakes you’re going to correct me and hopefully we’re going to keep this unity of purpose.”
Her sudden entry into politics is reported to have been prompted by her 90-year-old husband’s anger at factional fighting within Zanu-PF, which threatens to split his party after more than 30 years in power.
Best known for her love of designer outfits and sanctions-busting shopping in western capitals, Grace Mugabe has until now confined herself to charity work, her study of the Chinese language and overseeing the family’s vast business interests.
She married Mugabe in 1996, though this month she said she had been in a relationship with him for “nearly 30 years”. They have three children.
Analysts say she has been propelled forward to dilute the power of vice-president Joice Mujuru, a party “moderate” who until recently was a favourite in the battle to succeed as president.
Mujuru, whose army general husband Solomon was killed in a suspicious housefire three years ago, was defiant at the conference, opening her speech with the Shona song Some People In Our Midst Are Plotting Against Us.
The elevation of “Mother Mugabe” – as state media calls Grace – appears to benefit for now Mujuru’s main rival, justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa. But there is speculation that Robert Mugabe is grooming his wife to take over the presidency to safeguard his property and business empire and to stop the ruling party disintegrating. He has been in power in Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 and has said he cannot step down while Zanu-PF is so divided.
In her speech, Grace Mugabe appeared to echo her husband’s concerns, saying: “I hope this animal called factionalism will come to an end. And hopefully one day this word factionalism is something we will not talk about.”
In a sign of his frustration, the Zimbabwe president told the women’s league that all members of his politburo and central committee would have to resign before December “so new ones can be chosen”. If implemented, the move will affect more than 230 Zanu-PF officials. His wife’s position will only be made official at a party congress at the end of the year so she will not be affected.
Yesterday prominent Zimbabwean newspaper publisher Trevor Ncube tweeted: “President Grace Mugabe… It now looks possible.”
The previous head of the women’s league was Oppah Muchinguri, widely believed to have had a relationship with Robert Mugabe during the 1970s war for independence.
Meanwhile, his wife has recently moved into chocolate production, according to official Herald newspaper reports. Her Alpha Omega dairy in Mazowe has imported equipment from Europe that will allow it to double milk output and start producing chocolate and “sandwich” ice-cream, said Alpha Omega group general manager Stanley Nhari. The dairy, bankrolled by the president, is one of the biggest in southern Africa. The Mugabes have taken over several white-owned commercial farms since the start of the land reform programme in 2000.