ZIMBABWE — Rising from an ordinary telephone operator in the Office of the President to become First Lady, Grace Mugabe has a rags to riches story that some in Zimbabwe admire.
But Zimbabwe’s 50-year old First Lady equally has her fair share of critics, even among those who admire and liken her life to the Cinderella fairy tale after achieving instant recognition and success when she married President Robert Mugabe.
Some Zimbabweans despise her, claiming her rise from obscurity to fame was out of immorality and claim her conduct since entering the political arena last year as the women’s league boss in the ruling Zanu PF is not befitting that of a First Lady.
Grace Marufu rose to prominence in the late 1990s when the media first got wind of a child born out of wedlock while Sally Mugabe, the first wife of the President, was on her death bed, suffering from a kidney ailment.
She officially married President Mugabe in 1996 in a Cinderella-type of wedding, making her grand entrance to State House.
Just after the marriage, media stories on Mrs. Mugabe concentrated on her weakness for shopping and she was quickly nicknamed ‘Gucci Grace” by the international media as she strutted from one designer shop to the other on her visit to the West.
Back then she also restricted herself to domestic affairs, running her orphanage and family business, Gushungo Holdings.
Fast track to 2014, some say the first lady is literally running Zimbabwe, traversing the breath and width of the country campaigning for Zanu PF with government officials in tow, taking instructions from her as they follow her everywhere.
Harare resident, Kudakwashe Tsiga, says December 2014 ushered in a new Mrs. Mugabe for him than the one he has known since the late 1990s.
Tsiga says, “In December 2014 in the political arena of Zanu PF that is when we saw the visibility of Grace (Mrs. Mugabe) as she entered the political landscape. She has done a lot in terms of political actions and demonstrating political power and that way she has been felt in party structures but where she hasn’t been felt is national visibility.
“She has gone around doing rallies but these have been on behalf of the party but people are yet to feel her as the mother of the nation.”
While some have accused Mrs. Mugabe of being a gold digger and marrying President Mugabe for the benefits associated with the presidential office, Tsiga says the first lady had indeed shown care and protection especially towards Mr. Mugabe thereby displaying her motherly side.
He says, “She looks after her husband. She knows her husband is vulnerable due to the advanced age and needs to be looked after. She has come out strongly against the independent media in terms of how they have portrayed the advanced age of her husband. She criticizes the way her husband has been reported off in the media and she has come out as standing by her husband.
“Each and every time they are seen in public holding her husband trying to limit the effect of possibilities of what would have happened. Before you remember what happened at the airport the incident reported worldwide. She has tried to limit that and protect him.”
Tsiga says Mrs. Mugabe’s role as a typist should not be used to stereotype her mother of the nation role.
“People rise from anywhere. People rise from being a teacher to a president just like President Mugabe. I do not think it will be fair to pinpoint her profession as a typist. She could have been anything. A lot of leaders across the world are wives caring for children at home and they are not working and they are not being stereotyped as of lesser value.”
Another local resident, Tichaona Muza, concurs saying any woman, given a choice, would also want to be the country’s First Lady.
“She is a woman and was approached by the president and she did what any other woman would have done. Mugabe is the president for the country and every woman would want to become the first lady. She did something that is not unusual.”
Muza says Mrs. Mugabe is a motherly figure, adding her recent rantings have made her unpopular though, he adds, this is to be expected in politics.
“Before she entered politics she indeed exuded the image of the mother of the nation. She helped a lot in looking after her old husband who is the president. She stayed at home looking after family business and confined her interest towards orphanages or charity, but things changed when she entered politics.
“She has become vindictive against the people she doesn’t like or perceived enemies while at the same time she is loving and sometimes portrays herself as the mother to those she hast a soft spot on.”
However, for Yvone Musarurwa a 29 year old Harare resident, Mrs. Mugabe does not portray the image of a mother, adding her public outbursts were embarrassing even to young people like her.
“We as women expect a mother to assist all women. In Zimbabwe politically we are fighting for equal representation but she is the one at the top of excluding other women. She ran the show for Mai (former Vice President Joice) Mujuru to be booted out from Zanu PF.
“Right now she is asking for children to be taken out of school for her rallies. I don’t think she is good as the mother of the nation. She is a rotten egg in fresh eggs.”
Musarurwa says failure by the first lady to ensure that her husband retires reflects she is not a good mother.
“She is contributing to the downfall for her husband. If she were a wife who protects her husband, she would have given him advice to step down.”
Sickness Chikandiwa, a 33-year social analyst, echoes the same sentiments, saying Mrs. Mugabe has failed to rise beyond party politics – segregating those that do not belong to Zanu PF.
Chikandiwa adds that the first lady is incomparable to the late Sally Mugabe.
“If you are a mother of the nation you do not choose kids. When you have kids in the house you don’t choose to say I love this one and I don’t like this one. If you are a mother to the nation and you are giving inputs you do not say this one belongs to this party. She has not been taught how politics should be.
“She is just ranting and dressing down everyone. (The late Mrs.) Sally (Mugabe) was a mother everyone would adore. She was a mother any African country would want. When she was alive even the economy was fine. She knew when to stop the husband and say no we have gone too far but for Grace (Mrs. Mugabe) she wants to be above everyone even her husband.
Despite mixed reactions from Zimbabweans, the first lady is of late enjoying praise names crafted by faithful Zanu PF supporters – some are calling her Queen Mother, Mother of the nation, Amai, unifier par excellence while others, advocating for her to take a bigger role in the country’s politics are urging everyone to follow her through the ‘munhu wese kuna amai’ or ‘everyone to the mother of the nation’ mantra.