ZIMBABWE – What is surely among the most significant office romances on earth began some time in the late 1980s. She was Grace Marufu, a young woman of barely 20 who had recently been taken on as a typist at State House in Harare. He was Robert Mugabe, 41 years her senior, not only her boss but the boss of Zimbabwe since its independence, the struggle for which he had led.
By her own admission she was taken aback by his approach. “He came to me and started asking about my family,” she has said of that first encounter. “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.”
Both were married: she to Stanley Goreraza, an air force pilot and her teenage sweetheart, by whom she already had a son; he to the Ghanaian-born Sally Hayfron, companion from his fighting days, beloved in her adopted country for her revolutionary pedigree, her kindness and her concern for the poor. None of that, however, prevented Mugabe’s adulterous liaison with Marufu, who bore him the first of the three children they would have together even before Hayfron died of kidney failure in 1992. When he lost Hayfron, some say, Mugabe also lost his moral compass.
In 1996, Grace and Robert made it official, at a lavish ceremony to which 6,000 guests were invited, including Nelson Mandela. Today, they are two of a triumvirate that holds Zimbabwe in its hands – the hosts earlier this week of President Xi Jinping, the first Chinese leader to visit Zimbabwe in two decades, with Grace taking her Chinese counterpart Peng Liyuan to see the showcase orphanage she has set up at Mazowe, just north of Harare, on the land of an expropriated white farm.
Within the triumvirate, Robert Mugabe holds pride of place. He may be 91 and his powers in decline – as an embarrassing incident when he read the wrong speech at the opening of Zimbabwe’s parliament in September made clear. But he’s still alert and enigmatic, the master of divide and rule. Then there’s his Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, 69 years old, a hardline Mugabe loyalist, and a comrade-in-arms when Zimbabwe was called Rhodesia. Finally, there’s Grace.
At first, a position of such influence would have been almost unthinkable. Grace seemed a mere adornment, trophy wife of a man old enough to be her grandfather, who kept herself out of the public eye. When she did become known it was not as a Caterina de’ Medici, but as someone viewed as a gold-digger.
“Gucci Grace”, or “Dis Grace”, she was dubbed, for her foreign shopping sprees as her country sank into poverty, corruption and violence, and became an international pariah. Her husband and his top officials were placed on a banned list by the European Union and the United States – and so was she after an expedition to Paris in 2002 when she reputedly blew $120,000. In 2009, Grace made headlines again when she and her bodyguard reportedly assaulted a Times journalist, bruising and cutting him with a veritable knuckleduster of diamond rings. No charges were pressed, however, thanks to diplomatic immunity.
All the while, there were claims that she was using state money to build up a considerable business empire. According to a Wiki-leaked cable from the US mission in Harare, she was rumoured to have been among officials “extracting tremendous diamond profits”, skimming millions from Zimbabwe’s diamond mining industry. (Mrs Mugabe denies the claims.) At home she was a hugely unpopular First Lady, so different from her revered predecessor. For the world beyond, Grace was just another symbol of her country’s ills.
Her husband, meanwhile, pursued a “Look East” policy, focused on China, to attract investment and trade denied by Western sanctions, culminating with Tuesday’s signature of 10 agreements with Beijing worth a reported $1bn. But for Grace, China has a separate, and personal significance. One of her children is being educated there. She also owns a home in Hong Kong as well as one in Malaysia; these might be seen as potential bolt holes if the Mugabes’ luck runs out in Zimbabwe.
In some respects, Grace resembles Jiang Qing, the third wife of Mao Zedong known as “Madame Mao”. Both were secretaries who had affairs with older, married men. Both struggled to gain public acceptance; both sought to exploit the power and reputations of their despotic but ageing husbands for political advancement.
For Mugabe, the turning point was 2014. The gold-digger metamorphosed into a potential president, in a comprehensive image makeover that some have described as a “bedroom coup d’état”. The greedy and vapid First Shopper became “Dr Grace”, thanks to a PhD in sociology from the University of Zimbabwe, awarded after just two months and for which no copy of a submitted thesis has been made public. (Reports that she also holds a degree in Chinese are likely little more than propaganda.) That autumn she was appointed head of the women’s league of her husband’s ruling Zanu-PF party, in which capacity she crisscrossed the country for rallies that became known as the “Graceland tour”, not concealing her own ambitions. Her fourth political rally was held in Maphisa this week.
“They say I want to be president,” she declared at one rally. “Why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?” How much of this is the old man’s doing is unclear. Is he deliberately grooming her for a family succession, or is he unwilling – or unable – to hold his wife in check? What is clear is that the one-time typist is a driving force in Zimbabwe’s vicious succession politics, riven by plots and factions. A political rival puts it thus: “She is tenacious and determined; she is naïve and unpolished; she is feared and is known always to get what she wants.”
Those qualities were nowhere more in evidence than in her tirades in 2014 against the former Vice-President and perceived rival Joice Mujuru, who was gaining support only to be savaged by Grace as “ungrateful, power hungry, daft, corrupt, foolish, divisive and a disgrace”. In short order, Mujuru was sacked, along with her ally, the Presidential Minister of State Didymus Mutasa.
Now the succession seems to lie between her and Mnangagwa, known as “the crocodile” for his lurking, ruthless ways. She is backed by younger elements such as the Generation 40 (G40) group of Zanu-PF officials. Perhaps crucially, however, Mnangagwa commands the loyalty of the security establishment.
In fact, Grace may be seeking not so much the presidency as self-protection. “There are people who want to drag me down a tarred road when the President goes,” she has said. No one, in other words, can be trusted; the only guarantee of survival is not proximity to power, but power itself. “She has built an empire,” a commentator has noted, “and she needs her security.”
In Argentina, Cristina Kirchner did succeed her husband Nestor as president. In China, Jiang Qing lost the power struggle after Mao’s death, and ultimately took her own life in prison. In Zimbabwe, the stage is ominously set. Economic crisis again looms; an old President will be replaced, certainly by the next party congress in 2018, perhaps sooner. What fate awaits Grace, no one can tell.
Grace Mugabe: A life in brief
Born: 23 July 1965 in Benoni, South Africa.
Family: Raised by her mother; her father was a migrant worker. She has four children, three with Mugabe, her second husband.
Education: Sociology PhD, University of Zimbabwe.
Career: Typist in the 1980s at State House, Harare; married Mugabe in 1996. in 2014, named leader of Zanu-PF’s Women’s League and was instrumental in the sacking of Vice-President Joice Mujuru.