Grace Mugabe

'Gucci Grace' became a target of people's anger

HARARE • She is known for deft political manoeuvring, a volcanic temper and a reputation for corruption.

Zimbabweans have been mired in poverty under President Robert Mugabe, Africa's longest-serving leader, and his wife Grace, 52, became a target of anger over allegations that she siphoned profits from diamond mines and bought luxury palaces.

Nicknamed "Gucci Grace" and "Dis-Grace", she reportedly dropped US$120,000 during a trip to Paris in 2002 and purchased multimillion-dollar properties in South Africa. Earlier this year, she was widely panned for having spent US$1.4 million (S$1.9 million) on a diamond ring.

Despite deep unpopularity across the country, Zimbabwe's first lady managed to vault herself to the centre of a vicious internal battle to succeed her husband.

She led a revolt by a younger faction of politicians who posed a stark challenge to the authority of the veterans of Zimbabwe's struggle for independence from white-minority rule.

The divide has been generational and personal.

Mrs Mugabe has been a fierce defender and accomplice of her husband - she once claimed he could still run the country "as a corpse" - as he ruthlessly ousted two successive vice-presidents, Ms Joice Mujuru and Mr Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Above all, she has emerged as a champion of her own presidential aspirations as her husband's health has visibly declined. "They say I want to be president," she told a recent party rally. "Why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?"

Mrs Mugabe's flamboyance has set her apart and made it easier for opponents to build a case against her, said professor of world politics Stephen Chan of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

"Grace Mugabe became a Lady Macbeth in the Zimbabwean soap opera: She led her ailing and aged husband to make his fatal miscalculation that he could stand in the face of united military opposition."

Grace Marufu was born in South Africa in 1965 and moved to Zimbabwe as a child. She met Mr Mugabe in the late 1980s when she became his secretary. They were each married at the time.

The first Mrs Mugabe died in 1992, and Grace married Mr Robert Mugabe in 1996, after she had divorced her first husband, now a defence attache at the Zimbabwean Embassy in China.

Mrs Mugabe has denied reports of corruption, but without offering specifics.

"It is impossible for one to spend a million dollars in an hour," she said in an interview for a South African documentary. "I don't have time for all these things to pamper myself."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2017, with the headline ''Gucci Grace' became a target of people's anger'. Print Edition | Subscribe