Zimbabwe crisis: The party, First Lady 'Gucci Grace' Mugabe and the 'Crocodile'

(From left) Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's first lady Grace Mugabe and Zimbabwe's then acting President Emmerson Mnangagwa. PHOTOS: REUTERS, AFP

HARARE - Zimbabwe is the first country in Southern Africa to have a post-independence coup.

The military has taken control of the capital Harare, with tanks and troops stationed around the city. Its army generals officially announced around 4am local time on Wednesday (Nov 15) that President Robert Mugabe and his family "are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed".

While General Constantine Chiwenga insists it is not a military takeover, "safe and secure", for those who study African politics, is also code for secured.

This effectively means that the first family is now under some type of arrest and those closest to First Lady Grace Mugabe, who until the takeover appeared to be in charge in the ruling party, have been arrested for attempting to recolonise the country and undermining the revolution.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York. PHOTO: REUTERS


At the heart of Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis is the survival of the long-term ruling party Zanu PF.

Zanu PF survived in part because, as the country's political and economic stability declined over the last decade, nearly a quarter of the adult population emigrated - leaving no one to challenge the ruling party. A weakening opposition facing a very strong, stable Zanu PF made change unlikely.

Recently, however, Zanu PF has fractured and destabilised. Why?

One person whose motives are central to the crisis is Grace Mugabe.

Since the last election in 2013, and under Grace Mugabe's leadership, Zanu PF expelled key party members, including former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa - which appears to have triggered the army's intervention.

For months, the capital has been rife with rumours about the deteriorating relationship between Mnangagwa and the Mugabe family. In October, after Mnangagwa fell ill at a Zanu PF function, the First Lady and President were forced to deny public allegations that they had poisoned him.

But at the same time, Grace Mugabe began campaigning for Mnangagwa's ouster. That was significant. Her public denunciations of Zanu-PF officials have in recent years preceded their demotion. For instance, in 2014, she gave speeches calling for the ouster of then-Vice-President Joice Mujuru. Soon after, Mujuru was forced to quit both her Cabinet position and the party.


Zimbabwe first lady Grace Mugabe looks on before addressing congregants at a rally in the capital, Harare. PHOTO: AFP

At home and abroad, Grace Mugabe, like her husband, is a polarising figure. Some Zimbabweans argue that she has no real power and that whatever influence she has will die with her 93-year-old husband.

Others argue that she is an ambitious politician who could very well become the next leader of Zanu-PF and the nation. What are her real goals? It's difficult to know as in Zimbabwe, media is tightly controlled by the state.

Zanu-PF was set to hold its annual congress sometime before the end of 2017. There, many speculated, Mnangagwa's firing would be the central event - and Grace Mugabe would be named vice-president.

Grace Mugabe clearly wanted more power. In the last months, she suggested that the Zanu-PF constitution should be amended to mandate that one of the two vice presidents should be a woman.

On Nov 5, she asked a crowd of churchgoers, "Would it be so wrong if I was elected?" and said, "Give me the job and see if I fail."

Women in Zimbabwe, as in much of the continent, continue to struggle for a political voice. An avalanche of sexist attacks and misogynist attacks on the first lady - from men in both the ruling and opposition factions - has earned her a loyal following, despite the fact that, unlike her husband, she is brusque and to the point.

In a private Facebook group of over 30,000 Zimbabwean women, those loyal to the Grace Mugabe often comment that she is daring and hard-working - and argue that these traits intimidate men in politics who resort to sexual attacks. In response, others argue that as a woman she should focus on philanthropic projects and leave politics to men.

Grace Mugabe's public ambition emerged only recently. Before 2008, most international news coverage focused on her spending. Her love for designer apparel earned her the nickname Gucci Grace.

She once punched a photographer in Hong Kong with a diamond-encrusted fist. More recently, she was whisked out of South Africa to avoid arrest after a fashion model accused her of beating her with an electrical cord.

As Zimbabweans have been mired in poverty under her husband's rule, the First Lady became a target of anger over allegations that she siphoned profits from diamond mines and bought luxury palaces. She spent so much money on foreign trips that the European Union imposed sanctions on the Mugabes to stop them from sucking wealth out of the country.

Within Zimbabwe, state media covered her charity work and state duties. But in 2008, ahead of a March runoff election, she began headlining the party's campaign events, beginning her transformation from first lady Grace to comrade Grace. She traded in her designer dresses for military clothing, complete with a beret and Zanu-PF's trademark clenched fist.

A fierce defender and accomplice of her husband, Grace Mugabe says things that the average politician would not dare to say, blending snark and sarcasm with Biblical references. In less than two years as an active politician, she has brought down more than a dozen big men and women who have been at the heart of Zanu-PF's survival.

Unlike some other politicians, Grace Mugabe appears to openly enjoy the fight, even laughing at her own jokes, and the audience often joins in her glee.

Much like Sarah Palin, she reminds voters that she like millions of women is an ordinary, hard-working woman, a mother of the nation, who sometimes goes hungry in solidarity with suffering Zimbabweans - even though she is anything but ordinary.

Through her control of the Zanu-PF youth and women's leagues, Grace Mugabe now has a following of loyalists who find her straightforward "truth-telling" refreshing.


A file photo of Zimbabwe's then acting President Emmerson Mnangagwa speaking during a funeral ceremony in Harare. PHOTO: AFP

Back in 2014, when Robert Mugabe sacked his vice-president in front of 12,000 baying party members, Emmerson Mnangagwa sat quietly in the crowd, a green baseball cap pulled low over his eyes.

The man who stood to gain most from the dismissal betrayed nothing through his expression and gentle clapping - a survival tactic honed during five decades of service to the mercurial Mugabe.

His cap, however, spoke volumes. Emblazoned across its front, next to a portrait of Mugabe, were four words: "Indigenise, Empower, Develop, Employ" - a slogan of the ruling Zanu-PF party.

Speaking at the congress, Mnangagwa reinforced the message from his headgear, announcing revisions to the party's constitution that backed "total ownership and control" of Zimbabwe's natural resources. It was a key insight to the party's direction as it contemplated life beyond Mugabe.

"We will remain forever masters of our own destiny," Mnangagwa said, to cheers from the crowd.

With his appointment as official deputy to Mugabe in 2014, Mnangagwa had appeared well set as the eventual successor to Africa's oldest head of state.

The 75-year-old was one of Mugabe's most trusted lieutenants, having been at his side in prison, during wartime and then in government. Along the way, he earned the nickname "Ngwena", Shona for crocodile, an animal famed in Zimbabwean lore for its stealth and ruthlessness.

Mnangagwa backed Mugabe's economic nationalism, especially a drive to force foreign firms to hand majority stakes to local blacks, suggesting he may not be the pro-market pragmatist many investors were hoping for. He has been in every administration since independence, holding posts as varied as minister of state security, defence and finance, as well as Speaker of Parliament.

Most controversially, he was in charge of internal security in the mid-1980s when Mugabe deployed a crack North Korean-trained brigade against rebels loyal to his rival Joshua Nkomo. Rights groups say 20,000 civilians, mostly from the Ndebele tribe, were killed.

Mugabe denies genocide or crimes against humanity but has admitted it was a "moment of madness". Mnangagwa's role remains shrouded in mystery, typical of a political operator trained as a communist guerrilla in China in the 1960s and who always stayed in the shadows behind Mugabe.

Secretive and insular, he prefers to operate under the radar, those in his inner circle say, and when pushed into a corner, resorts to jokes and trivia to avoid serious discussion.

"I wouldn't say he is deceptive but it's fair to say his default position is to crack jokes and deflect uncomfortable questions by asking endless questions," one member of parliament close to him said. "He is very conscious that his public image is that of a hard man but he is a much more complex personality - pleasant and an amazing story-teller," said the politician, also from Mnangagwa's Midlands Province.

Mnangagwa's appointment as vice-president came a day after his predecessor Joice Mujuru was fired for allegedly planning to topple Mugabe.

Asked whether the purge would weaken the party, a smiling Mnangagwa said: "The revolution has a way of strengthening itself. It goes through cycles, this is another cycle where it rids itself of elements that had now become inconsistent with the correct line."

Mnangagwa learnt his politics in prison in the 1960s after being sentenced to death for sabotage by the British authorities following his capture while in one of the earliest guerrilla units fighting white colonial rule in what was then Rhodesia.

He was 19 and only spared the noose by a law prohibiting the execution of convicts under 21. After a decade in prison, often sharing a cell with Mugabe, Mnangagwa became personal assistant to the leader of the liberation struggle, and went on to head the guerrilla movement's feared internal security bureau.

In January, a photograph appeared in local media showing Mnangagwa enjoying drinks with a friend. In his hand was a large novelty mug emblazoned with the words: "I'M THE BOSS."

To supporters of Mugabe, this bordered on treason. They suspected that Mnangagwa already saw himself in the leader's shoes. When Mugabe fired Mnangagwa as vice-president last Monday (Nov 6) for showing "traits of disloyalty", he removed a possible successor who was also one of his last remaining liberation war comrades.


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