If Grace Mugabe had been put forward two years ago as a potential successor to her husband – a former freedom fighter who has run the country with an iron fist for more than three decades – most Zimbabweans would have laughed.
Today, the joke is not so funny. Mrs Robert Mugabe, a former typist in the Presidential pool, is a member of the ruling Zanu PF party’s politburo, head of the womens’ league and, so she says, wise counsel to both her President husband and his two deputies.
Her current enthusiasm for politics serves two purposes: to spare her increasingly doddery 91-year-old husband’s blushes by acting as his emissary, and to ensure that whenever he does eventually die, she will have made herself indispensable.
Once known for her love of Gucci shopping sprees and unceremoniously taking the place of Mugabe’s popular first wife Sally while she was dying, Grace Mugabe, 49, is now the topic of serious debate among political commentators. Most view her potential political accession with a mixture of bemusement and dread.
Some believe her ambitions lie not in taking the top slot but in preserving her role as “Amai Mugabe”, or Mother Mugabe, the head of a dynasty that must be protected and preserved by the nation once the aged President perishes.
Others say that her ambitions have no limits, and may include taking over from her husband.
“People show their intelligence in different ways – there’s no doubt she is intelligent and should not be underestimated,” one friend of the First Lady told The Telegraph.
“A thousand mothers could be CEOs but were not given the opportunity. She has it and might make use of it.”
Grace Mugabe was born in Benoni, South Africa, a dusty mining town to the east of Johannesburg which also spawned actress Charlize Theron and Charlene Wittstock, the former champion swimmer now wife of the Prince Albert of Monaco.
First married to an air force pilot who was later dispatched to Zimbabwe’s embassy in China, she caught the eye of the President when she was selected to work as a secretary in his office.
She maintains his wife Sally knew about the couple’s affair, which produced two children before their marriage in 1996; an event attended by 40,000 people including the then President Nelson Mandela.
A woman with undoubtedly sharp elbows, she set about putting her stamp on the presidency, reportedly rejecting the two official residences on offer to the first couple and instead requesting the construction of a new private mansion in the upmarket Harare suburb of Borrowdale.
Although not an official residence, the mansion is run with Presidential funds and employs more than 80 staff.
Mrs Mugabe even has a signature colour, turquoise blue, which adorns the tiles flown in specially from Shanghai to cover the palace roof.
The vast, three-storey estate has its own dedicated helipad, lakes, wildlife and more than 50 acres of sculptured gardens. It is carefully shielded from the public eye by rings of security cordons, a tall wall topped with the same “Grace” blue, lofty trees and a no-fly-zone.
The couple’s property empire expanded after her husband sanctioned violent seizures of white-owned farms at the turn of the millennium, with Mrs Mugabe presiding over the requisition of a dairy farm.
During the take-over of the first, the resident farmer overheard her discussing with a male friend how she would knock down his house and landscape the gardens.
Mrs Mugabe the businesswoman has however failed to make her mark.
Two mining ventures, in platinum and gold, are believed to have failed and the Gushungo dairy was, in 2009, revealed to be selling milk to Nestle in violation of sanctions (the food giant has since ceased trading with it). Mr Mugabe has himself admitted it is not profitable.
The Mugabes have three children, all of who are still thought to rely on their parents for financial support. Their daughter Bona, said by Mr Mugabe to be most like him, married a pilot and has a master’s degree in finance.
Their first son, Robert Jnr, failed his A-levels and is now in college in Dubai, said by friends to be more interested in basketball then business. Their younger son, Chatunga, was expelled from high school for bad behaviour.
The Mugabe’s financial liabilities give an insight into Grace’s sudden interest in politics.
While her husband has always featured in the lists of Africa’s most wealthy heads of state, it’s thought that a combination of poor management and Zimbabwe’s financial collapse has eroded much of his fortune.
If true, it means that Mrs Mugabe needs to carve out some form of official role for herself before her husband departs the presidency, by whatever means.
An extraordinary documentary screened in South Africa in June 2013 seems to have fired the starting gun for her re-invention. In an interview, the dreadlocked Mrs Mugabe showed off her orphanage, addressed decades of negative media coverage and described her role as the power behind the throne.
The following year, she was unveiled as “Dr Grace Mugabe”, the holder of a PhD acquired in just three months from the national university which claimed her husband as its vice-chancellor.
In the run-up to the Zanu PF congress in December last year, she emabarked on a series of 10 rallies dubbed the “Graceland tour” which were designed, she said, for her to “meet the people” – as though running a dairy, an orphanage and a school and being the First Lady had kept her at arm’s length from the masses.
"They say I want to be President," she said at one rally. "Why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?"
The prospect of a woman taking over one of Africa’s most beautiful and, at one stage, bountiful countries might appeal to some as a counterbalance to the series of strongmen that have paraded through the continent’s troubled history.
There was jubilation when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first female President in Liberia, and delight when Joyce Banda took over in Malawi. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former wife of South African President Jacob, seems to be strengthening the previously vapid African Union from her new position as its chairman.
Joyce Mujuru, the former vice-President of Zimbabwe – before she was accused of plotting against the President and hounded from office in a campaign led by Mrs Mugabe last year – was widely tipped to be his credible successor.
But while a large number of senior Zanu PF politicians followed Mrs Mujuru out of the door when she was ousted, few have lined up to back Mrs Mugabe.
Forty years her husband’s junior, she lacks not only anti-colonial struggle credentials but also any political background or even much formal education.
Where Mr Mugabe has the manners of a Victorian English gent, Mrs Mugabe is blunt to the point of brashness.
During her campaign to unseat the former vice-President Mrs Mujuru, she waspishly declared that the statuesque former independence fighter had offended the nation because she had too much "cellulite."
She has also been tainted by suggestions of ill-health, having vanished from her new-found political stage several times for medical procedures in Asia, where the couple take their annual holiday. Reports of surgery for appendicitis turned into suggestions that she might have had colon cancer.
Shortly after the trip however, she joined her husband on a state visit to South Africa and broke the ice between the two Presidents by taking to the dancefloor with Jacob Zuma for a hip-waggling display of diplomacy.
This week in Harare, she shared a platform with Zimbabwe’s two vice-Presidents who, she claimed, both seek her advice regularly. She is also reported to have shown compassion by taking the side of informal vendors facing eviction by her husband’s often-brutal police force.
A lot can change in politics, as Hillary Clinton, once the wronged wife and now the democratic Presidential candidate, can attest.
And if Google is anything to go by, Mrs Mugabe’s lightning role-swap is all but complete. Just months ago, its potted biography described her as ‘Zimbabwe’s first lady’. Today she’s a ‘political leader’. What tomorrow brings is anyone's guess.Post published in: Mugabe Succession