Grace Mugabe, the first lady of Zimbabwe, has been a polarizing figure in African politics. In recent months, however, she has seen a meteoric rise in her own political career. Her husband, the 91-year-old President Robert Mugabe has been in power since 1987. Here are 12 things you didn’t know about Grace Mugabe and her potential role in the future of Zimbabwean politics.
Sources: Telegraph.co.uk, NehandaRadio.com, TheIndependent.co.zw, TheGuardian.com, BBC.com, Telegraph.co.uk
Grace Mugabe was married to Stanley Goreraza, an Air Force pilot who now works at the Zimbabwean embassy in China. While she was married and working as President Robert Mugabe’s secretary, she became the president’s mistress. She and the president have two children together – Bona, named after Robert’s mother, and Robert Peter, Jr.
While working as a typist in the state house, Grace said in interviews that she viewed the president as a father figure, and never expected anything to happen between them. In an interview about their first encounter, she said, “He came to me and started asking about my family…I looked at him as a father figure. I did not think he would at all look at me and say, ‘I like that girl.’ I least expected that.” Grace said she was hesitant about the relationship at first, especially given that both of them were already married.
In 1992, Mugabe’s first wife, Sally Hayfron, died of kidney failure. A popular figure in Zimbabwe, she is still considered the founding mother of the nation. In 1996, Grace and Robert married in what Zimbabwean media called the “wedding of the century.” Both Grace and Robert said Hayfron knew about their relationship before her death.
The first lady attracted much criticism for her extravagant taste, earning her the not-altogether fond nickname, “Gucci Grace,” or sometimes, “The first shopper.” After a 2003 trip to Paris, she got backlash for spending more than $120,000 on just one shopping expedition. In the years leading up to 2004, she allegedly withdrew nearly $8 million from the Central Bank of Zimbabwe, presumably for personal use.
Grace was one of the most powerful voices in former Vice President Joice Mujuru’s downfall in 2014, accusing Mujuru of plotting treason against the president. On many opportunities, Grace undertook a name-calling campaign, saying Mujuru was “corrupt, an extortionist, incompetent, a gossiper, a liar and ungrateful.”
At the party congress in December 2014 Grace was nominated and approved by delegates as head of the ZANU-PF Women’s League. With that appointment, she also became a member of the ZANU-PF Politburo. After her appointment, she told crowds that “the time has come to show people what I am made of.”
At one rally, Grace Mugabe said, “They say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?” Along with her rapid rise to political power as leader of the Women’s League, this further fueled perceptions that she discredited Mujuru, considered a front runner to succeed the president. Robert, however, said during a state visit to South Africa that his wife “doesn’t have those ambitions.”
Source: BBC.com, TheGuardian.com
In September 2014, the University of Zimbabwe granted Grace a doctoral degree in sociology just two months after she entered the program. President Mugabe helped make that happen — he is chancellor of the university. Many in the academic community criticized the move and called for Grace to return the degree, concerned that it could harm the reputation of the university.
With the help of Chinese funding, Grace helped found an orphanage just outside Harare, and has since expanded it to include schooling for up to 900 students. Her Ph.D. thesis was also meant to look into orphanages in Zimbabwe, but this has been under scrutiny.
Many expect Grace, given her new position, to be appointed as a cabinet minister later in 2015. Along with many who are shocked by her quick ascent to power, she still gets some respect. Marcellina Chikasha is the leader of Zimbabwe’s African Democratic Party (ADP), newly formed in April 2014. She commented on Grace’s political cunning despite her lack of experience. “Call her shrewd, power hungry or plain old ‘being in the right place at the right time’ – this typist has become a kingmaker in Zimbabwe’s succession politics…She is tenacious and determined; she is naïve and unpolished; she is feared and has been known always to get what she wants.”
The Chinese company Afec was hired to build a secondary school at Grace’s orphanage in Mazowe. Zimbabwean workers said they were refused contracts, underpaid, forced to work increased hours without corresponding pay raises, and generally exploited.
In January 2015, Grace had surgery in Singapore, supposedly to have her appendix removed. While her husband returned to Zimbabwe, Grace remained abroad for several weeks, fueling reports that she was seriously ill. There were some reports that the first lady had died. She is normally a constant presence at the president’s side. There have also been reports that Grace is battling colon cancer. She eventually returned to the public eye, initially appearing gaunt, but later appearing to be in good health.