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Zimbabwe coup: Grace Mugabe, first lady and power behind the throne

Grace Mugabe was a secretary in the president’s office when the two began an affair while Robert Mugabe was married to his first wife.

world Updated: Nov 15, 2017 22:57 IST
AP, Harare
Grace Mugabe,Robert Mugabe,Zimbabwe coup
President Robert Mugabe's wife Grace Mugabe looks on during a national church interface rally in Harare, Zimbabwe.(Reuters File Photo)

Wednesday’s military intervention in Zimbabwe complicates matters for President Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace. She was expected to be Zimbabwe’s next leader after the President fired his deputy and former security chief Emmerson Mnangagwa a few months ago, apparently to make way for her ascension.

Here’s what you need to know about the outspoken Grace Mugabe, who has survived a number of scandals and at one time looked poised to become the south African nation’s leader:

The affair

Grace Mugabe was a secretary in the president’s office when the two began an affair while Robert Mugabe was married to his first wife, Sally. Grace and the president had two children while his wife was ailing from the kidney failure that killed her in 1992. Grace split with her own husband, and her wedding to the president in 1996 was attended by Nelson Mandela and other African leaders.

The 52-year-old South African-born first lady has seen her profile rise in the past few years and in recent months has fiercely defended her ailing husband, declaring that he should run “as a corpse” in next year’s election if he dies before the vote.

A military tank is seen with armed soldiers on the road leading to President Robert Mugabes office in Harare. (AP Photo)

The assault allegations

The first lady caused outrage earlier this year when a South African model accused her of whipping her with an extension cord in a Johannesburg hotel room. Grace Mugabe was granted diplomatic immunity by South Africa despite calls for her prosecution. She later accused the 20-year-old of being the aggressor.

In 2009, the first lady escaped charges through diplomatic immunity after allegedly assaulting a British journalist who tried to photograph her while she was shopping in Hong Kong.

Read | Tanks on streets but Zimbabwe army says not a coup, Mugabe is safe: What we know

Three men and a woman were also arrested after they allegedly booed Grace Mugabe at a ruling party rally. A report said they would face charges of undermining the authority of the President, by singing “We hate what you’re doing” as the first lady spoke.

“Her controversies will not do much to stop her. In (the ruling party) ZANU-PF, they seem to be accepting her as her husband’s successor. The problem might be getting the support of other Zimbabweans who feel she is simply not presidential material,” said Harare-based political analyst Alex Rusero.

The money

Despite an often abrasive manner, Grace Mugabe’s commanding presence and charity work have won support from some Zimbabweans. But while she often displays her charitable side, talking about how she takes care of orphans at a farm near the capital Harare, she also faces criticism for lavish personal spending.

Last month, the first lady approached a Harare court to recover over $1 million she said she paid to a Lebanese for a 100-carat diamond ring. Such actions have frustrated many in the once-prosperous southern African nation whose economy has fallen apart in recent years.

President Robert Mugabe listens to his wife Grace Mugabe at a rally of his ruling ZANU-PF party in Harare. (Reuters File Photo)

Political ascension

The first lady emerged to become her husband’s chief defender in 2014, when she led the firing of Joice Mujuru, a vice-president and potential successor to the president. The same year, Grace Mugabe was appointed to head the ruling party’s women’s league.

The first lady and her husband had openly criticized Mnangagwa, a long-time ally of the president, before he was ousted. The president accused his former deputy of plotting to take over, including via witchcraft, while Mnangagwa said in a statement he had left the country after threats to his life.

In July, the first lady broke taboo and openly told her husband to choose a successor, saying it would “enable all members to rally behind one candidate.”

At a rally in November, Grace Mugabe displayed her own presidential ambitions. “So I have said to the president, you can also leave me in charge. You can also give me your position. Give me the job and I will do it very well because I am good. I can do a great job,” she said.

First Published: Nov 15, 2017 12:12 IST