The life of Grace
She is used to getting what she wants, whenever she wants it. If there is someone standing between her and the target, the person must give way. If there is a law prohibiting it, it is no more than a minor inconvenience. As Zimbabwe’s First Lady, Grace Mugabe lives a privileged life. When her rival Joice Mujuru was due to be awarded a doctoral degree by the University of Zimbabwe in 2014, she emerged from the academic wilderness to also claim a PhD at the same ceremony. The equation was simple: If Joice was going to be a Dr, she would also be a Dr.
When she wanted to import an expensive diamond ring last year, the currency restrictions issued by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe would have stood in the way. Instead, they were simply ignored. She got her bank, the state-owned CBZ to pay the million dollars for the precious rock into a Dubai account. There’s nothing essential about a diamond ring, but Grace Mugabe wanted it and not even the poor Governor of the central bank, Dr John Panonetsa Mangundya, could do anything about it.
When she wanted to expand her already vast land holdings in the Mazowe area, she simply got the villagers settled at Manzou Farm evicted. Their homes were razed to the ground. More recently, it’s been alleged that she fancied Mazowe Dam, a large reservoir of water which for decades fed the once-flourishing Mazowe citrus estate and she claimed it for herself. That is the life of Grace. Nothing stands in her way. She is used to getting her way. Every. Single. Time.
When the princess is a servant
But her current experience in South Africa is a grim reminder of the wisdom of the ancestors whose proverb mwana washe muranda kumwe couldn’t be more appropriate. Literally translated, it means the child of a king is a servant in foreign lands. It simply means that it does not matter that you are a prince or princess in your homeland, when you travel to other kingdoms, you must humble yourself and abide by the rules of that foreign land. Grace Mugabe forgot that wisdom when she travelled to South Africa and there, allegedly assaulted a young girl whom she found in the company of her sons. Social media is awash with pictures of the wounded girl who was allegedly beaten using an extension cable. She has horrendous injuries on her head, indications of what must have been a frenzied attack. Two other girls were also allegedly attacked in the same incident.
The news is embarrassing, if not to Grace, it certainly is to her husband, President Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe as a nation. People expect their First Lady to conduct herself with grace and to demonstrate the etiquette befitting a person of that station. Once again, Mugabe has had to rescue a desperate and disgraceful situation involving a family member. Only last year, reports indicated that he had to cut short an official trip to fly to Dubai to rescue Robert Jnr, his eldest son who had found himself on a sticky wicket. The boy was living a posh lifestyle in Dubai but he got himself entangled with unsavoury elements. The incident allegedly prompted his departure from the Middle East. The family found a new lair in Sandton, reputed to be the wealthiest square mile in Africa.
Burden of parenting
This time Robert Jnr was joined by his younger brother, Chatunga. The boys have gained notoriety for the lavish party lifestyle which is at variance with the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans who struggle to make a dollar a day in a country where the boys’ father has ruled for 37 years. It did not take the two boys make their mark in town and not in a pleasant way. Their station in life brings with a lot of money and they are not embarrassed to flaunt it. Most Zimbabweans are unimpressed. Last weekend, at a rally in Gwanda, without any hint of irony, Mugabe discouraged young Zimbabweans living in the south of the country from going to live and work in South Africa as most have done for generations. He had probably forgotten that his own sons are in South Africa. Or he just did not care. Zimbabwe is a typical Animal Farm scenario where some animals are more important than others.
The boys’ lifestyle seems to have caused much angst for their parents. But at 93, Mugabe is old and must be struggling to keep up with the boys’ hectic and chaotic lifestyle. He is not as hands on as he used to be. He has not hidden his disappointment in respect of the boys, who have struggled with their education, preferring to praise his daughter, Bona, now married and a mother of his only grandson. This leaves Grace carrying the burden of parenting the two young men, a task which has landed her in her deepest trouble to date. Her older son from a previous marriage has not fared any better. Like most parents of young men, she has a busy shift. It is worse if they are spoilt and believe they can do whatever they want. She is probably carrying the stress of parenting two reckless young men who don’t seem to appreciate the enormous challenges they face once their ageing father is gone. But whatever challenges they have presented to her, there is no justification for using violence against their female companions. Most parents in the impoverished land are in worse situations but they manage to conduct themselves with dignity.
Still, few Zimbabweans who have followed Grace’s political career can be surprised that it has come to this. If true, the hotel incident is perfectly consistent with the public character that most Zimbabweans have become familiar with in recent years. Frenzied attacks in public have become something of a trademark. She has no boundaries. One can only wonder what goes on in private. Three years ago she launched the most vicious and undignified attacks against Joice Mujuru, who was the Vice President of the country. On one occasion she humiliated Mujuru by refusing to shake her hand as the Mugabes arrived from one of the numerous foreign trips. It was one of the first signs that she could be utterly cold and callous. She seems to revel in humiliating adults in public; making others feel small and inadequate. Ray Kaukonde, a former senior politician in Mashonaland East Province, was a victim as she publicly chided him as if she was speaking to a little child.
Similarly, just two weeks ago, Grace Mugabe publicly lambasted George Charamba, the presidential spokesperson and Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Publicity. She called him to stand up in front of a large crowd and like a head-teacher addressing a naughty pupil, she chided Charamba in full public glare. She demanded to know why state media, which Charamba oversees, was not giving her and her allies positive coverage. And she got her way. A few days later, the editorial tone had changed in her faction’s favour and state media was announcing a special supplement to celebrate Grace Mugabe’s philanthropic activities. She had demanded it and she got it. This is what Grace Mugabe is used to. She uses her power to harass and get her way and in Zimbabwe, she is guaranteed to get it.
In more recent weeks, Grace has been using her husband’s political rallies to push for a successor that favours her interests. It’s time to nominate a successor, she instructed her husband two weeks ago. It was an unusual call coming from someone who up until then had insisted Mugabe would rule from a wheelbarrow or if need be, from the grave. Now she wants a successor named because she has a candidate in mind and she hopes to get it. She is plainly opposed to Emmerson Mnangagwa succeeding her husband and her faction has been promoting a rival candidate, presumably Sydney Sekeramayi as an alternative candidate. Mnangagwa’s faction, widely known as Lacoste has been under serious pressure in recent weeks, with Grace Mugabe leading the public assault. Whether or not she can get her way is still a big question but she seemed to be cruising in recent weeks.
Will the Johannesburg incident damage her bid? It has certainly wounded her reputation even further and more questions regarding whether she is fit and proper to hold high office will be raised. Can she handle power when she portrays such unhinged characteristics? She is not the first at her station to behave erratically. The late Lucy Kibaki, wife of former Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki had some dramatic moments during her time, at one point clashing with journalists and another demanding that her husband declare to the nation that he only had one wife – herself. As for Grace Mugabe, perhaps the pressure of the succession race is affecting her. For years, Mugabe has been the rock upon which she has relied. But now, he probably relies more and more on her. Then there are two boys who are refusing to grow up. And there is a future in which if she fails rivals will surely make her life miserable. All this must be causing a lot of stress.
The news is that she has left South Africa and is now back in Harare, although this remains unverified. If true, this is notwithstanding the fact that she was expected to appear at a magistrate’s court in Johannesburg to answer charges of criminal assault. South African police allege that she broke an agreement reached with her lawyers earlier during the day. There are reports that a warrant of arrest has been issued. If all this is true, it adds further embarrassment to the case. But if she left the country, it also begs many questions of the South African authorities. She would have flown out of the country and would have had permission to do so. Certainly the South African intelligence would have known about it. It would seem to be yet another case of political corruption where the ANC government rescued their comrade’s wife in a difficult moment. That could present a political problem for Zuma and his government.
Of course, without getting into specific details, the issue of diplomatic immunity might have been raised in her favour but it is they all want to avoid the embarrassment of Grace Mugabe being hauled before the courts in South Africa. She had a similar scuffle with a journalist in Hong Kong a few years ago and got away on grounds of diplomatic immunity. Even so, to focus on whether or not she would have been prosecuted or convicted is to miss the point. Whether or not she is eventually prosecuted, the fact that she has been involved in a potentially criminal incident, that she has been involved in an allegedly frenzied attack on a young girl and that she has had to submit herself to the police in a foreign country represents a major climb-down for someone who got used living above the law in her native country. The big picture shows this is the second time that she has been involved in a violent incident in a foreign country. She escaped with diplomatic immunity in the first and if she survives the second incident on the same basis, it would surely amount to abuse of diplomatic immunity.
Culture of impunity
This sense of impunity has been apparent for some time. Towards the end of last year, a Middle Eastern businessman living in Harare took Grace Mugabe and her eldest son, Russell, to court, alleging that they had unlawfully dispossessed him of his properties and occupied them. The saga related to the million dollar diamond ring which Grace Mugabe had purchased through the businessman. She decided later that she didn’t like the rock and demanded a refund from the businessman. When he challenged her refusal to comply and couldn’t refund, she took occupation of his properties. Court orders were flagrantly ignored. It’s the kind of life that is normally associated with outlaws.
Now that she has left South Africa without accounting for her conduct, it will only add to the misleading aura of invincibility. But the trouble is she is manufacturing enemies by the dozen. Once the protection that is afforded by her husband is gone, there will be too many hounds coming after her. It is not a pleasant prospect. Meanwhile, her behaviour is exposing her sons in a country where violence is commonplace. It might be time for the boys to go back home and face the conditions created by their father’s rule. Their mother might have stirred a hornet’s nest south of the Limpopo. After all, as their father told people at the rally last weekend, the land is there and as a family, they happen to have lots of it.
It is too early to say whether the Johannesburg incident will affect her faction’s interests in the succession race. Her faction was on cloud nine before this episode. They were cruising and their rivals did not seem to know what had hit them. This embarrassing incident will knock their confidence a bit. No amount of spin can make it look or sound better. Their detractors must be celebrating one of her lowest moments. Only a few days ago, Victor Matemadanda, the war veterans’ association’s Secretary-General, wore a T-Shirt whose words chided Grace Mugabe for failing in her parenting duties towards her children. You can’t claim to be a mother to 14 million Zimbabweans when you are failing to mother your two boys, was the core of the hard-punching message. They will now point to the violent incident in Johannesburg and say, we told you so.