At the heart of Grace Mugabe’s extraordinary journey from struggling single mother to the most powerful woman in Zimbabwe is a love story.
It was the early 1990s and she was a young divorcee who had secured a job in the president’s typing pool. The president himself came around to say hello. He kept coming round.
“He came to me and started asking about my family,” she told South African journalist Dali Tambo in 2013, in a rare interview. “He just started talking to me, asking me about my life. Were you married before, things like that … I didn’t know it was leading somewhere. I was quite a shy person, very shy.”
The anglophile president wooed Grace over tea and scones, but there were a couple of obstacles to their relationship. One was the age gap – President Robert Mugabe is 40 years older than Grace. Another was the fact that the president was already married, to Sally Mugabe, who at the time had terminal cancer. “I felt a bit uncomfortable when he proposed to me since he was still married to Sally,” she said.
Mugabe, never a great romantic, took a practical approach. “It was necessary for me to look for someone and, even as Sally was still going through her last few days, although it might have appeared to some as cruel, I decided to make love to [Grace]. She happened to be one of the nearest and she was a divorcee herself. And so it was,” he said in the same interview.
Sally died in 1992. Grace and Robert were married in 1996 in a lavish ceremony attended by 40,000 people, including Nelson Mandela. By then the couple already had two children and a third would arrive a year later.
At first, as she struggled to emerge from the popular Sally’s shadow, Grace was a quiet first lady. She appeared by her husband’s side for official functions but she rarely got involved in politics herself. Publicly she focused on charity work; privately, on legendary shopping expeditions. Nicknamed “The First Shopper” or “Gucci Grace”, she has a penchant for Ferragamo heels. On one spree in Paris she is widely reported to have racked up a £75,000 bill.
But the seeds of the first lady that Grace would become – more involved, more powerful – were already being sown.
In 2009 a British photographer, Richard Jones, tried to take her photograph outside a hotel in Hong Kong. She wasn’t happy. Jones alleges that he was chased down by her bodyguards, who pinned his arms back while she punched him repeatedly in the face. She has since been implicated in several incidents outside Zimbabwe: in Singapore, in Malaysia and most recently in South Africa, where she was accused this week of assaulting a young model with the plug at the end of an extension cord. She has previously been protected from investigation or prosecution by diplomatic immunity and is expected to be so again.
Outside her role as Zimbabwe’s first lady, she has also run several failed mining businesses and built her own dairy farming empire on five previously white-owned farms. The former owners had been evicted during Zimbabwe’s controversial “land reform” process.
Grace was learning from her husband, she explained. “I was very young when I started living with President Mugabe. But he was patient with me and took time to groom me into the woman that I am now,” she said in a 2012 speech.
In 2014 she was slowly unveiled as a potential successor to her husband. She became head of the ruling party’s women’s league, a position which gave her a seat on the party’s all-powerful decision-making body, the politburo. She was awarded a doctorate from the University of Zimbabwe, although she was only registered at the institution for three months, giving her the necessary academic background (her thesis, on the changing structure of the family, has never been publicly released).
The state propaganda machine began talking up her political acumen – and so did she. She started holding rallies where she would rail against the president’s perceived enemies. “They say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?” she said at one, held just outside Harare.
Grace Mugabe is not the only contender for the throne, of course. Another faction within the ruling party, led by the vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is strongly opposed to her political activity, viewing it as a brazen attempt to keep power within the Mugabe family.
But the first lady’s proximity to the president gives her a major advantage, especially as he becomes more and more frail. He now conducts much of his business not in State House but from his private mansion in an upmarket Harare suburb. The opulent mansion – its grounds contain not one but two lakes – was decorated by Grace with marble columns, faux-Louis XIV furniture and lots of gold leaf.
When visitors come to visit the president, they usually find Grace there too. “In many ways she’s the unofficial prime minister of the country,” said a source close to the first family.
He added that despite her increased profile, it is still far from clear how much Grace actually wants to be president – or how much is about positioning herself and her family to survive in the aftermath of her husband’s death. The president is 92 years old and requires frequent medical treatment abroad.
“Today Grace is viewed as an opportunistic, greedy, selfish, aggressive woman motivated by fear of her husband’s death,” Andy Moyse, a veteran Zimbabwean journalist, told the Guardian in 2015. “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.”