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Zimbabwe's First Lady Makes Political Inroads

  • Anita Powell

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe stands with his wife Grace, as they pose for a photo at State House in Harare, Oct, 28, 2014.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe stands with his wife Grace, as they pose for a photo at State House in Harare, Oct, 28, 2014.

Political fireworks are expected when Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party holds its congress in early December. The event is meant for the longtime ruling party to appoint leaders. But this year some fear it could turn into a political bloodbath, as the aging president’s wife tries to oust the vice president and boost her own political standing.

For more than 30 years, Zimbabwe’s ruling party has had one unrivaled fixture: the man on top, Robert Mugabe.

As President Mugabe approaches his 91st birthday he is continuing to control his ZANU-PF party - and hamstring potential successors - with a divide-and-rule strategy.

The party meeting, which begins December 2, is likely to yield two dramatic events: one, Mugabe will promote his wife to his party’s inner circle and two, he will demote Vice President Joice Mujuru, whose popularity is seen as a threat.

Political analyst Judy Smith-Hohn of the South African Institute of International Affairs says while this congress will follow old patterns, there have been some recent political surprises - like the meteoric political rise of Mugabe’s wife, Grace.

“It’s going to be an interesting event this time, because we have seen Grace Mugabe really rallying up and rallying against the current vice president, Joice Mujuru. This is not something we’ve seen thus far. But what we have always seen has been factionalism. There’s always been factionalism within ZANU-PF. We’ve just not seen the First Lady step up as she has up until now. I think that’s what has caught people by surprise. Because she obviously has been more popular and more well-known for her taste in clothing than for her interest in politics," said Smith-Hohn.

Grace Mugabe’s sudden political fortunes have come with more than a little help from the president. In August, she was given the top post in ZANU-PF’s women’s league. In September, her husband, who is the chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe, capped her with a Ph.D in sociology just two months after she enrolled in that program.

The newly minted Dr. Mugabe then embarked on a rally tour of the country, praising her husband and repeatedly insulting the embattled vice president.

Mrs. Mugabe seems to share her husband’s knack for caustic rhetoric. Recently, the mother of four threatened: “soon we are going to baby dump your faction leader.”

Political analyst Pedzisayi Ruhanya, director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, decoded that statement for VOA’s Zimbabwe service.

“There is no doubt that the remarks by Grace Mugabe were aimed at the vice president, Joice Mujuru. This is the clearest indication that all she is doing in approaching this has one political objective. And that political objective is to remove the vice president, as the vice president and the second secretary of the ruling party," said Ruhanya.

But Smith-Hohn says Mrs. Mugabe’s power play may have more to do with Mugabe’s inevitable demise than with Mrs. Mugabe’s own desire to lead.

“The fact that she’s moved into the political arena, obviously that indicates that there’s an acknowledgment, or there’s a desire, to secure a future for the Mugabe family. What that future holds, I mean, whether she really aspires to taking a top position, that’s anybody’s guess," she said.

And analyst Ibbo Mandaza tells VOA’s Zimbabwe service that Mugabe, ever in control, may have deployed his own wife to fight his political battles.

“She’s a sideshow, initially as part of the whirlwind to destabilize Joice and have her removed. But ultimately I don’t think she has any ambitions for that top post," said Mandaza.

This year’s event is likely to be full of political twists and turns. But through all of that, one thing is clear: the name Mugabe is still very much on top in Zimbabwe.