Zimbabwe's first lady barged into a Johannesburg hotel and allegedly assaulted a South African model. In Zimbabwe, however, the greater concern is over what her political aspirations mean for the country.
HARARE — It must be a sore point for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace that the couple’s two sons show none of the veteran leader’s political instincts. The recent controversy Grace Mugabe has courted, in which she reportedly assaulted a young South African woman, is her latest attempt to rein in the epicurean impulses of her playboy sons.
The Mugabe boys had relocated from Dubai to Johannesburg, South Africa, earlier this year. Accompanied by her bodyguards, Zimbabwe’s first lady allegedly barged into one of two luxurious Johannesburg hotel rooms which her sons had booked and then, using a electrical cord, beat up Gabriella Engels, a South African model.
Engels, who was in the hotel room with the Mugabe sons, suffered a gash on her face and injuries to the back of her head at the hands of the first lady.
“We were chilling in a hotel room, and [the sons] were in the room next door. She came in and started hitting us. She flipped and just kept beating me with the plug, over and over,” she told South African media shortly after the assault.
Engels reported the assault to South African police. Grace Mugabe, 52, was reportedly due to hand herself over to the police and later appear in a Johannesburg court last Tuesday. Yet it emerged on Wednesday that she had instead invoked diplomatic immunity.
The South African police minister Fikile Mbalula said, “the law is about ensuring that everyone is protected and in terms of foreign citizens they should understand their responsibility, especially those that hold a diplomatic passport that you [speaking as a South African passport holder] can’t just go to Zimbabwe and beat people and the matter will disappear.”
The first lady’s conduct is likely to cause heightened awkwardness in Zimbabwe and South Africa’s relations. There are already tensions between the two neighbours over the irregular immigration of so many Zimbabweans into South Africa; an estimated three million Zimbabweans are thought to be in South Africa.
Clayton Monyela, South Africa’s international relations spokesperson, rejected the notion that Grace Mugabe enjoyed diplomatic immunity during the trip and could therefore escape prosecution.
“She needs to be here on official business. It won’t apply if she’s here on holiday or for something else. Secondly‚ as a first lady‚ she’s not part of government or a government official. It doesn’t apply just because she’s the wife of a president‚” Monyela said.
Even though South African government officials were bullish about the rule book in public, in private it must be a head scratching moment. President Robert Mugabe is, after all, revered by the South African government and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.
Grace Mugabe’s (nee Marufu) buccaneering attitude and scant regard for the law in South Africa are typical of her behaviour back home. Because of her husband’s position, she wields a disproportionately large influence in the ruling Zanu PF party and on the Zimbabwean government, despite not holding any official position in it.
Carving out her turf
She recently became the secretary for women’s affairs in the Zanu PF party’s highest decision-making body. And in the prime farming area of Mazowe, north of Harare, she has evicted scores of peasants from farms she has acquired to pave way for her various projects. These evictions of the poor are to make way for a school, an orphanage, a game park and even a university. Although the university is ostensibly a private venture, the first lady will receive a billion dollar government grant. She has even had the support of armed police officers to bar local villagers from using the Mazowe dam, effectively privatising a state-owned water source.
Grace Mugabe is so powerful that, a few weeks ago, at a Zanu PF rally, she chastised the presidential spokesperson, George Charamba, as her husband looked on over the state media’s negative coverage of her allies. By implication, she was attacking Charamba for belonging to a camp popularly known as “Lacoste,” a grouping of battle-hardened and ambitious people in the army, government and intelligence with links to Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, widely tipped as the favourite to succeed the 93-year-old president.
Grace Mugabe, however, has become the figurehead of an opposing faction known as the “G40,” which includes people like Jonathan Moyo, the scandal-mired minister of higher education, local government minister Savior Kasukuwere, and others.
Lacoste and G40 are locked in a death battle to succeed the aging ruler and nothing has been left to chance. Last month, perhaps tiring of Mugabe’s equivocation on who will succeed him and the power struggles it has unleashed, Grace Mugabe dared her husband to name his preferred successor. While she would love to succeed her husband personally, that appears unlikely, and so the first lady instead wants a say in the decision of who will rule the country after her husband’s death; the first lady doesn’t trust Mnangagwa to protect the vast property portfolio, extensive landholdings and businesses that she has acquired during her husband’s three decade-rule.
Perhaps the first time Zimbabweans had an insight into the scale of Grace Mugabe’s ambitions was in a cry at a 2014 rally framed at once as a statement, plea and question: “They say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?”
If the lightweight politician does become president, her rise will rank as the most dramatic in Zimbabwe’s contemporary history, even more eye-catching than her husband’s ascension from party spokesperson in the early 1960s to head of Zanu PF and then leader of the nation at independence in 1980.
In 1996, when she married Mugabe, she had disavowed any interest in politics. At the time her entry into politics was unthinkable because of both her gender and relative youth in a conservative society which privileges age and being a man.
“I don’t think I’d like to be a politician, I have children to look after,” she said that year.
“But I look forward to working on various charity organisations. I will try and lead a normal life as much as possible. I have had many friends but not too many. My best friend is my husband.”
She had been plucked in her 20s from the anonymity of the presidential typing pool at Munhumutapa Building, the complex that houses the president’s offices, to become Mugabe’s concubine. After Sally, Robert Mugabe’s first wife, died in 1992, the two married four years later in a lavish wedding ceremony which thousands attended, including Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first president.
Coming out of the shadows
More recently, as Mugabe’s powers started to wane in his old age, his wife has increasingly stepped out of the shade in which she had been cloaked to declare interest in the country’s top job.
Her declaration was sensational for a person who is not a natural politician and who had lived for so long in the shadows cast by the larger-than-life figure of her husband and his widely admired first wife, Sally.
Grace Mugabe had been the other woman, which is known in Zimbabwe as “the small house.” She was, in those initial days in the 1980s, a mere spectre; someone whose very existence was both myth and rumour. If the declaration of her ambition caught Zimbabweans off guard, it was because people hadn’t been paying attention. In 2012, two years before this announcement, she had more than gestured at this prospect.
In response to a question of whether accompanying Mugabe on the election campaign trail meant she wanted to be next president, she told a state weekly:
“I went on to ask them if there was anything wrong if the people one day decided they wanted me to be the president of this country. So, really, some people took it that way, that I wanted to be a politician and that’s why I was campaigning.”
Then she was still being coy, for when asked whether she had intentions of joining the political fray, she replied, “not quite. I have not anticipated [sic] that.” Since then, she has been elevated to Zanu PF’s politburo, the party’s highest decision-making body, and regularly holds rallies together with her husband.
At the time of her marriage to Mugabe, the late political scientist John Makumbe said, “although she says she is not interested in politics, the nature of our politics is such that practically, she will be a big influence. A lot of people, especially, in Zanu PF seem to recognize this fact and are already looking for vantage points because they know that their whole system is built on patronage, and access to Mugabe is crucial. Many of these people were, figuratively, licking Grace’s feet throughout the weekend.”
It was a prescient observation because, in the 2000s, as President Mugabe took a laissez-faire approach to government because of old age and various ailments, and began to spend more time at home, the Mugabe private residence in Harare became central to Zimbabwe’s Game of Thrones. Warm relations with the president’s wife guaranteed access to Mugabe.
Even though five years ago she waved away suspicions of being the power behind the throne as “nonsense”, it is clear Mugabe has become increasingly reliant on his immediate family on a day-to-day basis.
“They say Mr Mugabe is a very old man, this and that, but the president is very sound and lucid. Very, very sound, I am telling you, very energetic. He will not miss his morning exercise, seven days a week. Which other old man can do that at his age?” she asked in 2012.
Not many, that’s for certain, but it’s now five years later.
After the assault, Robert Mugabe headed to South Africa for a regional meeting where he suddenly had to also rescue his wife. As long as he remains in power, the South African assault case will in all likelihood turn out to be a minor inconvenience played out on social media, which won’t stop Grace Mugabe’s bigger concern: to manage the succession so that she can secure her and her family’s vast interests.