'Cyclone' Grace sweeps through Zim

HARARE - It’s hardly a couple of months since Grace Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s First Lady, launched her political career through a “surprise” nomination by members of Zanu PF’s Women’s League, the ruling party’s wing that represents the women.

While it appeared like a surprise nomination, it was, in fact, a well-choreographed operation, which involved the incumbent chairperson of the Women’s League stepping aside to make way for Grace Mugabe’s entry into active politics in a senior leadership role.

As head of the women’s wing, she will be in charge of one of the ruling party’s two vanguard institutions — the other is the Youth League, which represents the young men and women of the party. Both constitute critical mobilising units, with women being, invariably, the majority of voters in every election.

Apart from the power and influence that comes with the office, she will also sit in the politburo, the communist-style executive organ of the ruling party, which meets regularly and is responsible for making key decisions between meetings of congress, the party’s highest decision-making organ.

Before this elevation, Grace was an ordinary, card-carrying member of the party. While she has stood by Mugabe and accompanied him on his political tours and rallies over the years, she always remained in the shadow of the nonagenarian and few would have imagined her as an active politician.

To some, she was a trophy wife of an ageing African leader, whose main interests lay in the pursuit of glamour, fashion and feathering her nest.

However, in recent years, she has sought to build a new persona, carving out a reputation as a shrewd businesswoman, building Alpha Omega, a dairy company, which does everything from dairy farming to agro-processing in a modern and integrated business model.

Thanks to power, wealth and better access to resources that come with her husband’s high office, hers might be regarded as one of the more successful stories of the land reform programme which attracted much controversy in the early 2000s.

A few years ago, she raised some dust when she claimed that Nestle, the Swiss-based food manufacturing multinational, was boycotting her products.

In recent years, she has taken over a large chunk of the former Mazoe Citrus Estates, which used to produce citrus fruits for the export market and provided the raw material for the manufacturing of Mazoe Orange Crush, an orange squash that is very popular in southern Africa.

Ironically, in her political campaign, Grace Mugabe and her supporters are using a motto that makes reference to “Orange Crush”, which involves waving bottles of the popular orange squash, most of which is now produced in South Africa by Schweppes, another brand of Swiss origin.

On that formerly productive land, she has built an orphanage and a school to cater for the children. She announced a few months ago that she wants more land to build a Robert Mugabe University.

Just a few weeks after her nomination, it was announced that she would be graduating from the University of Zimbabwe with a PhD in sociology — apparently a study on orphanages.

This took many people by surprise and caused quite a storm with doubts raised over the credibility of the degree. Writing at the time, I argued that it was a political award designed as part of an equalisation campaign, in which she had to be cast as an equal to Joice Mujuru.

Mujuru is the Vice President of the country and currently, by rank, the next in line to succeed Robert Mugabe should he, for any reason, leave office. The theory is that Grace is being positioned to challenge Mujuru for succession.

Others argue that Mujuru’s real challenger is not Grace herself but Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Justice minister and a long-time ally of Mugabe.

The theory is that the faction led by Mnangagwa, which also includes Information minister Jonathan Moyo, is using Grace to fight off Mujuru and in that way, pave the way for Mnangagwa’s ascendancy to the Vice President’s position, where he will be poised to take over from Mugabe when he vacates office.

The last time Mujuru and Mnangagwa fought for the same office in 2004, Mujuru triumphed on the back of a popular call to elevate women leaders in order to promote gender equality. It would have helped that at the time Mujuru was backed by her powerful husband, retired general Solomon Mujuru.

But retired general Mujuru died in a mysterious inferno which gutted his home in 2011, a circumstance that has left Mujuru relatively weaker and more vulnerable.

Whatever the truth may be in the succession matrix, the last few weeks have given us a good opportunity to know more about Grace in her new guise as a politician.

In the last two weeks, she embarked on a whirlwind tour of the country, visiting the country’s 10 provinces on what was dubbed a “Meet the People Tour”.

Before then, chiefs from across the country had been wheeled in to her Mazowe complex to endorse her nomination. They plied her with more platitudes, just like the women had done at the earlier gathering.

After the chiefs, pastors from churches were also brought to Mazowe for a similar function. They, too stampeded over each other in singing praises of Grace Mugabe. With the women, youths, chiefs, pastors all singing her praises, it was time to unleash her upon the country. Hence the tour of recent weeks. 

The tour was designed ostensibly to thank the women around the country for nominating her to head the women’s league but, in reality, the tour served at least two more purposes; first, it was designed to showcase Grace to the people and to help construct her national profile away from the shadows of her more powerful husband.

Second, it was meant to demonstrate to her rivals that she was a political force to reckon with in that she had the capacity to pull the crowds nationally. She was cast as a unifier, as a mother-figure of the party and the nation who had been invited and had accepted the opportunity to cure the party of its internecine wars.

But, probably unbeknown to her, her handlers also intended to unleash her as a weapon to begin the demolition job on Mujuru’s power edifice, which is what she has been doing during the rallies.

What emerged, however, as the tour progressed, is probably more than what her handlers could have imagined.

More than once, they have had to issue fire-fighting statements to limit the damage arising from her reckless statements.

Further, the resultant image has been that of a petty, vindictive, power-hungry and uncouth personality who has a high inclination to abuse power against opponents, real and perceived. Far from being a pacifying and unifying figure, Grace has polarised Zanu PF even further and far from creating a zone of comfort for herself and her family in the post-Mugabe era, she has stepped on too many toes and possibly created more opponents or people who just do not like her.

Even people who are traditionally inclined to support the opposition and take little interest in the affairs of Zanu PF, appear to have been drawn to the furore and have been amazed by the antics of the First Lady.

In the end, it would appear that it is Mujuru and not Grace who has earned a better public reception, even though she has done nothing but receive vicious attacks from Grace.

In thinly-disguised remarks at the different rallies, Grace has brutally attacked Mujuru — calling her the “demon” of factionalism, a corrupt and lazy leader who piggy-backs on her husband, Mugabe and all sorts of names in the most undignified language which is not normally expected of a First Lady.

In the beginning, Information minister Jonathan Moyo tried to sugar-coat her unseemly comments, saying that they were not directed at Mujuru, until a point when even the State media, normally a reliable propaganda machine, could not contain the disguise and published on their front pages, that Grace had called for the ouster of Vice President Mujuru.

The Herald carried the headline that the VP had been asked to apologise to the president or face the chop. Pliable analysts were wheeled in to give “intellectual” backing to the call for Mujuru to resign in the face of allegations made by Grace at a political rally. All State media has taken a patently anti-Mujuru stance from the start, repeatedly attacking her and her backers. This is not surprising given that the Information minister, who controls all the State media, is in the faction that is fighting Mujuru.

To her credit, Mujuru has, so far, maintained stoic silence in the face of a barrage of attacks by Grace, her allies and the State media. And with people horrified by Grace’s conduct, public sympathy appears to have weighed in favour of Mujuru, whom they view as a victim of abuse of power by the First Lady and her handlers.

Ironically, on Friday evening, Mugabe left for Rome to attend a mass for the beatification of Pope Paul VI at the Vatican. He was with his wife at the airport.

The Sunday Mail reports that Grace greeted all waiting officials but avoided Vice President Mujuru. Meanwhile, Mujuru is constitutionally, the acting president of the country. While this gives her certain powers in terms of the Constitution, traditionally this has been no more than a titular role.

A Cabinet meeting cannot even be held in Mugabe’s absence.

The next article will take a point by point enumeration of the things that we have learnt from and of Grace over the period since her entry into active leadership politics.

*Dr Magaisa is based at Kent Law School, University of Kent and is a former advisor to former Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Comments (2)

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Aluta Continua - 21 October 2014

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