President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace, attend a rally of his ruling ZANU-PF party in Harare, Zimbabwe, Nov. 8, 2017.
President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace, attend a rally of his ruling ZANU-PF party in Harare, Zimbabwe, Nov. 8, 2017.

JOHANNESBURG - Tension is growing over the status of Zimbabwe's first lady, after President Robert Mugabe praised her at a rally Wednesday, indicating that she may be his pick to replace his recently fired vice president.

"We should uphold the route of the party," Mugabe said at the rally in Harare. "We despise those that abandon the party in the afternoon and, when it is evening, they go against the party. We despise that — it does not matter even if you were very close with the president. It does not matter if the president called you to the party and put you close to him and walked with you through the journey."

As the president spoke, people held up banners showing support for first lady Grace Mugabe. 

Already, state controlled-media — which is loyal to the longtime president — has reported that two provinces have chosen to back Mrs. Mugabe to be the new vice president.

The ruling ZANU-PF party will make the official decision at a party conference in mid-December.

Meanwhile, Chris Mutsvangwa, the head of Zimbabwe's powerful veterans' association, was in neighboring South Africa on Wednesday, agitating for recently sacked vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa to lead a multi-party coalition to challenge Mugabe in the polls next year.

Former Zimbabwe VP Emmerson Mnangagwa
FILE - Emmerson Mnangagwa, then-vice president of Zimbabwe, greets party supporters in Gweru about 300 kilometres south west of the capital Harare, Sept, 1, 2017.

He deflected the notion of mobilizing the nation's army to overthrow Mugabe by force.

"If we are going have an electoral slate, once the electoral process is restored to an even keel, where there is no interference, we will want a ticket where Mnangagwa becomes the head of the ticket and Dumiso Dabengwa becomes the vice," Mutsvangwa said.

The president fired Mnangagwa on Monday, citing disloyalty, deceitfulness and other issues.

Mutsvangwa served in Mugabe's cabinet in the 1990s and now says he regrets it.

"They [the Mugabes] are using the state, the executive of a doddering, senile old man who has now been completely seized by his wife, who is young and ambitious. We want to say to the region, 'Can't you find a way of making this old man see sense?' …. This is a coup by marriage certificate,'" Mutsvangwa said.

Robert Mugabe is 93 years old; his wife is 52.

In a statement issued Wednesday from an undisclosed location, Mnangagwa said he fled threats on his life, but is safe now and that he was loyal to Mugabe to a fault during his tenure. He says he will now work to restore the integrity of the ruling party — without the Mugabes.