Our writer talked to ordinary women in the streets, in cafés, on buses, to find out what they thought about the wife of their president. Their comments and opinions remain anonymous – and very different from the phoney crap we usually hear.
Gucci Grace. Dis-Grace. Dr Amai Grace Mugabe. With a list of nicknames like that, it is clear that Zimbabwe’s first lady inspires many feelings among Zimbabweans – particularly women. But her increasing political prominence has earned her a reputation as a go-getter; she’s an unlikely woman maximising gains for herself in unlikely circumstances.
At first, she was introduced as the obligatory wife of a male head of state, standing silently by the president at political rallies wearing dresses and doeks with her man’s face on them. This show of family values was meant to allow us to relate to the couple as the metaphorical father and mother of the nation. Not an easy task: as Zimbabwe’s second first lady, Dr Amai was stepping into the shoes of the most-beloved first lady in the history of Zimbabwean first ladies – Sally Mugabe, Robert Mugabe’s first wife, who died in 1992 of kidney disease.
The president has said that his first wife, while on her deathbed, knew of the affair. Dr Amai’s then husband, still very much alive, quickly and quietly departed to work in China. Two children out of wedlock cemented their relationship, and now the couple have a third.
‘From what I know about her, I think she’s an opportunist. I think she has something to hide about how she left her husband and ended up with the president. It makes me think she will do anything she wants, no matter how wrong it is. Whatever it takes to get what she wants, she’ll do it. Because she hasn’t even tried to justify why she did what she did.’ T, 26, reporter
After her public, and official, ascent from loudly-whispered-about mistress to first lady, Grace Mugabe at first devoted her time to frequent and lavish overseas shopping; her own personal bank account seems bottomless. This behaviour provoked the envy of ordinary Zimbabwean women, but mostly the ire of the people. We complained that being conjugally connected to leadership did not give her the right to spend on Salvatore Ferragamo money that is so badly needed in Zimbabwe.
‘I think that her public image leaves a lot to be desired. Unfortunately, in a country that’s laden with economic problems, she’s managed to earn a reputation of living a decadent lifestyle.’ W, 24, student
Now, the former typist in the president’s office is more popularly known as Dr Amai Grace Mugabe, or Dr Amai for short. As of last year, the enterprising first lady ‘earned’ herself a PhD. In a concerted effort to change her image, she has positioned herself as a champion of children by building an orphanage for homeless kids in Mazowe, where she controls large tracts of land. Never mind that the state evicted families in the same area to make way for Mugabe’s own exclusive wildlife sanctuary.
Last November, Zimbabweans got the shock of their lives from a most unlikely source: Dr Amai.
Dr Amai may be the mother of the nation but she is certainly a woman of contradiction.
‘She is a heartless woman who doesn’t care about fellow humans.’
Me: ‘What makes you say that?’
‘She evicted people from their homes just because she wanted the farm they were living on and didn’t bother to see if they had better housing.’ B, 34, waitress
But since then Dr Amai has come a long way. Her recent – surprising – ascent to chairperson of the Women’s League set many tongues wagging. She’s the one to watch as a political party torn by infighting falters in an undeniable leadership crisis.
Although few admire her, most dare not criticise the woman who has increasingly begun to imply that she has a hand in the running of the government of her husband, President Robert Mugabe, and by extension, the fortunes of this floundering nation. In 2015, Zimbabwe is in the midst of a leadership crisis because of one obvious fact: Robert Mugabe, now 91 years old, cannot rule forever.
But who will take his place? Some say, Gucci Grace.
Last year, she spearheaded a campaign to rid the party of factionalism, starting with the incredible ouster of the second-most powerful position in government, Vice President Joice Mujuru. It takes a woman to get rid of a woman, it seems.
‘Well, my feelings towards her oscillate between extreme admiration and (extreme) fear… admiration because here is a modern African woman; she’s a go-getter, she’s ambitious, she sets goals and she achieves them, self-assertively… She is a wife and mother and does a great job of balancing the traditional roles and the new millennium way of life with great ease… Fear, because make no mistake, a force as formidable as this lady is NOT to mess around with.’ M, 31, graphic designer
And Vice President Mujuru discovered that too late. She was blindsided. The public didn’t see it coming either. In the past the former vice president and Dr Amai were regarded as cordial acquaintances, both of them graduating and receiving their PhDs together. But last November, Zimbabweans got the shock of their lives from a most unlikely source: Dr Amai. We witnessed the unveiling of a new side to the president’s wife.
‘I’ve never really given her much thought until last year when she said all those things… I don’t know if that is who she really is or what…’ K, 45, domestic worker
‘I think she wants to be the most powerful woman in the party. She is now addicted to power.’
In a series of shocking speeches, the first lady began a verbal assault on Mujuru, a possible rival. In a series of tirades stripped of political diplomacy, she detailed Mujuru’s failures – her greed and her power-hungry, out-of-control shenanigans – to such an extent that the nation sat in stunned silence in the face of the withering attack.
The first lady exclaimed, ‘I trapped Mujuru and I now have a recording of her in a miniskirt, speaking ill of me and the president. We are tired of this stupidity, ngaaende izvozvi [she must leave now]!’ One wonders which was the worse offence, speaking ill of the president and his wife or wearing a miniskirt. A serious crime indeed!
But, in spite of its lack of finesse, its petty dramatics and its obvious attempt to appeal to the layman, it worked – although some remain sceptical.
‘She wants to get a grip on power… her husband is getting old. She knows the only access to power she has is through her husband. And so now she wants to put herself in a place… so that when her husband dies, she’s not completely out of the party, or thrown out of power.
‘She is also trying to keep her children’s interest… she has business interests also that she is trying to protect. In all these years, she has never (not even at ward level) tried to show that she has any interest in power. Now all of a sudden, she wants to be in the Politburo. And when she gets into power, she eliminates the most powerful woman in the party… She is now addicted to power.’ T, 26, journalist
In a matter of weeks, the ouster and fall from grace (excuse the pun) of Mujuru was complete. She was dismissed amid countless allegations, with florid details of her business and personal affairs splashed on the front page of every newspaper. What was most shocking was that her removal was spurred on by the first lady, someone who does not hold political office. Where will Dr Amai turn next? Whose head is next to roll? Who’s to say – the first lady is full of surprises.
‘With power comes responsibility and with that comes expectations from the people you’re leading. She emerges at some points and helps widows, orphans and the most vulnerable in society, but then retreats when issues like the changing of the age of marriage come up, or when we need to deal with the safety of young girls in the city. She is inconsistent. And that bothers me.’ W, 24, student
The first lady is reportedly ill with colon cancer. After her successful destruction of Mujuru, she disappeared to Singapore for treatment, ostensibly for appendicitis. But this month she emerged again, wading into the Johannes Tomana debate on child marriage: ‘Any individual with such views is a pervert. They are the ones abusing children…’
For those seeking to benefit from ZANU-PF in the future, she has become the new person of influence.
She also stated that the two vice presidents regularly meet with her, listen to her and take notes. Previously, she has also been cited as supporting the vendors who are currently under siege in all major cities. But at the moment, she is mysteriously silent, lending credence to the view that she pops up and speaks to curry public favour during debates on hot-button issues.
She commands little respect from those who have something to say about ZANU-PF party politics. But for those seeking to benefit from ZANU-PF in the future, she has become the new person of influence.
Even though she declared that she didn’t have ‘the ambition to run for the presidency’ to The Sunday Mail in an interview this summer during the official hoopla surrounding her birthday, Dr Amai is here to stay. Her recent political prominence may be an attempt to secure her vast financial interests, or it may be to prop up her elderly husband whose strength and stamina has decreased with time. Whether she will take over in the event of his death is up for debate as there are many waiting in the wings eager for the role.
But over the past year she has alternated between being bold as brass – careless even – in her declarations and the next minute being very careful, almost mute. I think Dr. Amai is astute enough not to announce outright her presidential ambition now. This announcement will be announced at the right time and these outbursts are designed to get the people used to the idea of President Dr. Amai Mugabe. She will claim the role (if she can claim it) at the right time.
* Women from all walks of life were interviewed for their opinions of the first lady. Their names and identities are presented anonymously at their request.
Do you think Grace Mugabe has what it takes? Is she a feminist icon who’s overcome the odds or is she a political menace? Join in the conversation at #TRUEAfrica.