Zimbabwe first lady adds intrigue to Mugabe succession politics

ZIMBABWEAN First Lady Grace Mugabe has been a controversial figure over the years. There are people who adore her as the Mother of the nation, an enthusiastic philanthropist, but there are also people who called her “Dis- Grace”, blaming her for gross business involvements and alleged overseas shopping spree. But the 49-year-old former presidential office secretary proves not to be a person to be sidelined, not even in politics, under the watch of her iconic husband, Zimbabwe’s founding father Robert Mugabe since 1980.
Zimbabweans were caught in a surprise this week by the nomination of Grace Mugabe, who does not hold any party or government positions, to head the ruling party’s women’ league, a nomination that is likely to her a position in the powerful politburo. Speculation on Mugabe succession has grown wild lately as the president turns 90 and the ruling party Zanu-PF is scheduled to hold a national congress to elect a new politburo this December. The latest development adds intrigue into a party that is riddled with factionalism and may “shift the ground” of the party’s succession politics, analysts say.
Even the state-controlled Sunday Mail newspapers on Sunday ran an Op-Ed hailing Grace Mugabe’s transformation from village girl to “political game changer.” Current affairs analyst Tichaona Muchapera said the emergence of the First Lady is one of the most real tests for the party. “The move signals that the First Family is now planning for a post Mugabe era, by parachuting Grace into the top echelons of power, the family is now seeking a continuation of their stranglehold on power,” he said.
He said to those who closely follow the First Family this does not come as a surprise since over the years Grace Mugabe has been trying to be her own “man” in public by handling issues to do with women without her husband. Minister of Women Affairs, Gender, and Community Development Oppah Muchinguri, the current Secretary of the Women’s Affairs in the Zanu-PF politburo, said it was time that the First Lady became active in the party structures by assuming the position.
According to the party internal electoral regulations, a person should have served actively for at least 15 years to be considered for a position in the Central Committee, which is still a rung below the politburo. In the week after Muchinguri made the nomination public, a number of groups and party sub-sections like the women’s league and the youth league have given their support for Grace’s political endeavor, leading analysts to believe the nomination is not a “trial-balloon” but a fact “as real as carved in the stone.” If Grace is accented in December, she will become the second First Lady to assume that position after Mugabe’s first wife, the late Sally Mugabe, who held it from 1989 to 1992.
Pedzisai Ruhanya with Zimbabwe Democracy Institute said he doubted the First Lady’s popularity among party cadres. “Without doubt, she cannot be compared to Sally for historical reasons. Sally participated in the liberation struggle and was part and parcel of the formation of the women’s league,” he said. He said, however, that the endorsement meant that her preferred candidate might get the crown in Zanu-PF succession battles.
Mugabe, born in 1924, has led Zanu-PF since 1977 following the death of the then national chairman Herbert Chitepo in a car bomb blast in Zambia two years earlier, and has been the country’s leader since independence from Britain in 1980. But as Mugabe advances in age, so does the factionalism within his party as others seek to take over from him when he finally goes. Vice President Joyce Mujuru and Justice and Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa are said to lead the two fighting factions, though both deny it in public.
The factionalism worries Mugabe as the veteran leader uses most of his public speeches lately to stem fierce fighting within the party. “The moment they start discussing it (succession), they go into factions and then you find the party dividing itself. So why discuss it when it is not due?” Mugabe said at his 90th birthday celebration, urging people to only talk about succession. “when the day comes and I retire, yes, sure, the day will come, but I do not want to leave my party in tatters.”
Independent newspapers suspect the elevation of Grace Mugabe is a blow to the ambitions of Mujuru, as the 59-year-old widow of Zanu-PF’s former army chief Solomon Mujuru will no longer be the most powerful woman in the politburo as long as Mugabe still commands the nation’s politics.
Factionalism in the party came in the open in 2004 with the elevation of Mujuru to head women’s league and then vice president when Mnangagwa, a former liberation fighter and Mugabe’s right- hand man for decades after independence, was also eyeing the vice presidency. The two camps boast of top party officials who have either covertly or overtly supported either of the two. Some say Grace Mugabe might be thrown into the fray to neutralize the two factions as her role will largely be that of a kingmaker.

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