Grace Mugabe, the wife of Zimbabwe’s long-time president Robert Mugabe, has agreed to head his party’s powerful women’s league in a surprise first move into frontline politics.
Shopaholic Mrs Mugabe, 49, said “it would be difficult for her to refuse” the offer of the post at the weekend.
Her election, to be confirmed at a ZANU-PF congress later in the year, means the former typist will sit on Mr Mugabe’s highest decision-making body, his Soviet-style politburo.
It could even, some believe, open the way for her to seek nomination for the presidency – with her 90-year-old husband’s full support.
In power since 1980, an increasingly frail Mr Mugabe is deeply worried about in-fighting within ZANU-PF. The party is split into two main camps, one led by Joice Mujuru, the vice-president, and another led by justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa. In April the president hinted that he would prefer “another candidate” and that could mean Mrs Mugabe.
Best known for her love of designer shoes and bags, Mrs Mugabe was variously dubbed Dis-Grace and the First Shopper throughout Zimbabwe’s 2000-08 crisis when she accompanied her husband on sanctions-busting trips to Western capitals so that she could shop.
In recent years she has tried to reinvent herself as a shrewd businesswoman and a caring wife and mother, establishing Zimbabwe’s biggest ever dairy as well as a school and an orphanage on a former white farm, one of several she is reported to have seized.
Now a household name, Mrs Mugabe appeared alongside her husband in a carefully choreographed interview for South African television last year, in which she insisted Mr Mugabe’s first wife Sally was aware of her affair with the president before her death in 1992. “She is preparing herself for a critical role in government, not the party, after Mugabe in order to protect the interests of the Mugabe family, the interests of her children and herself,” said Harare-based analyst Pedzisai Ruhanya.
Hundreds of ZANU-PF delegates clapped and ululated on Saturday as Mrs Mugabe was asked to lead the women’s league at a “surprise” 49th birthday party.
“You could tell it was choreographed,” said Mr Ruhanya. “They knew what was going to happen there.”
Yesterday politburo members and state-approved analysts told the official Herald newspaper that they welcomed news of Mrs Mugabe’s nomination to the women’s league.
Mines minister Obert Mpofu – desperately fighting to retain his job after allegations he demanded a £6 million bribe from a diamond mining firm – said: “The First Lady really deserves that post.”
But the private Newday claimed that ZANU-PF was “tense” over Grace’s nomination – and Mr Mujuru’s absence from the event has raised speculation that the vice-president is far from happy.
“[Mujuru] knows this could be a very big powerplay,” Jeffrey Smith from the RFK Center For Justice and Human Rights in Washington told The Scotsman. “[President] Mugabe is always two steps ahead. While Grace lacks political credentials, she is married to the puppet-master.”