Zimbabwe’s first lady Grace Mugabe, a polarising figure, may succeed in the footsteps of her 93-year-old husband Robert as president when he dies or steps down.
Once a quiet figure known for her shopping and her charity work, she now has a high-profile role in the ruling Zanu-PF party as the head of its women’s league and she has been instrumental in the ousting of several potential successors to the presidency.
Her main rival, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, was accused of disloyalty and sacked in early November 2017. Mrs Mugabe has won key party members’ support – including her husband’s – for succeeding him to the vice-presidency.
At 52 she is four decades younger than her husband, the world’s oldest ruler, who has governed Zimbabwe since the end of white-minority rule in 1980.
His party has nominated him to stand for re-election next year, but he has been on several medical trips to Singapore this year and there are concerns about his health.
Mrs Mugabe has always been a staunch supporter of her husband – earlier this year she memorably said that he could even win votes as a corpse. She herself has not denied wanting to take the helm of the country, and at a 2014 rally she said: “They say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?”
But political opponents have warned against a dynasty taking shape, and she has been criticised for seeking to use her diplomatic immunity when accused of assaulting a 20-year-old South African model with a plug. This was not the first time she was accused of physical assault.
Along with her husband, Mrs Mugabe is subject to EU and US sanctions, including travel bans, imposed over the seizure of land belonging to white people and accusations of rigged elections and crackdowns on political opposition.
- Began affair with Robert Mugabe, 41 years her senior, while working as a typist in state house
- Mr Mugabe was still married to his first wife, Sally, who was terminally ill at the time
- Married Mr Mugabe, her second husband, in 1996 in an extravagant ceremony
- They have three children – Bona, Robert and Chatunga
- Nicknamed “Gucci Grace” by her critics who accuse her of lavish spending
- Named head of Zanu-PF women’s league in 2014, tipped to be named vice-president in December
- Accused of assaulting a model in South Africa in 2017
Mrs Mugabe spearheaded the ousting of a former ally, then-Vice-President Joice Mujuru, in 2014.
She said the vice-president should be sacked from government because she was “corrupt, an extortionist, incompetent, a gossiper, a liar and ungrateful” and accused her of collaborating with opposition forces and white people to undermine the country’s post-independence gains.
A few months later Mrs Mujuru was expelled from Zanu-PF. She and her supporters have since set up a new party.
The new vice-president was Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former justice minister who Mrs Mugabe had called “loyal and disciplined”.
By 2017, Mrs Mugabe was publicly calling on her husband to remove Mr Mnangagwa. She suggested that his supporters were planning a coup.
When he fell ill at a rally and had to be airlifted out of the country for treatment, his supporters blamed poison administered through ice cream from Mrs Mugabe’s dairy farm, a suggestion she denied. He later said he had been poisoned, but it was “false and malicious” to suggest it was at the hands of the first lady.
In November, Mr Mugabe sacked Mr Mnangagwa. The country’s information minister said the vice-president had “exhibited traits of disloyalty”.
In 2014, BBC Africa’s Zimbabwe correspondent Brian Hungwe charted Mrs Mugabe’s rise:
President Robert Mugabe began wooing Grace Marufu over tea and scones while the young typist was working in state house.
“He came to me and started asking about my family,” she said in a rare interview about their first encounter in the late 1980s.
“I looked at him as a father figure. I did not think he would at all look at me and say: ‘I like that girl.’ I least expected that.”
Having married before she had a son, and says she was initially hesitant about such a relationship. Mr Mugabe is more than 40 years her senior and his first wife Sally, a Ghanaian who was much loved in Zimbabwe, was terminally ill at the time.
But insiders say that during office tea breaks Mr Mugabe continued to work his charm.
Mr Mugabe has said Sally did give her consent to the union before she died in 1992 – though they did not marry until four years later.
The last of their three children was born in 1997.
Grace Mugabe has since grown into a powerful businesswoman and sees herself as a philanthropist, founding an orphanage on a farm just outside the capital, Harare, with the help of Chinese funding.
But a new road sign reading “Dr Grace Mugabe Way” – put up near the dusty piece of land near the Zanu-PF headquarters as delegates gathered for the party congress – shows how her ambitions have broadened in the last year.
The 49-year-old is believed to have earned her sociology PhD in two months from the University of Zimbabwe. Her thesis has not been filed in the university library.
However, the doctorate gives the first lady gravitas – and within weeks of being capped, campaign material with her new title appeared at rallies around the country as she prepared to take over the leadership of the Zanu-PF women’s wing after being nominated for the role in August.
It is fair to say Mrs Mugabe evokes strong emotions – her fans applaud her style and forthright nature, her detractors have nicknamed her “Gucci Grace” and “DisGrace” because of her alleged appetite for extravagant shopping.
In the mid-1980s, Zanu-PF gave Mr Mugabe a big piece of land in the upmarket Harare suburb of Borrowdale to build a home on.
But it lay undeveloped for a decade-and-a-half until Grace Mugabe became involved.
Now the first family have vast properties, businesses and farms dotted around the country, mainly in the rich western and northern Mashonaland provinces.
She is known to be tough – at one time kicking some farm workers and their families off land – but she is usually modest and reserved in interviews.
Her political rallies during her “meet the nation” tour have shown a new surprising side to the first lady – her sharp tongue.
As she took to the podium in each of the country’s 10 provinces, she was unrelenting, using chilling words, in Shona and English, to pick on her opponents.
“‘Stop it. Ndakakumaka rough (I don’t like you and I’m watching you),” she warned.
She also lashed out at the late Heidi Holland, the Zimbabwean-born author of Dinner with Mugabe, saying she had died because she had been cursed for writing lies about her husband.
‘Kingmaker in succession politics’
For Zimbabweans, it was like a soap opera – she washed the ruling party’s dirty linen in public, calling on those she picked on to resign or apologise.
Marcellina Chikasha, leader of the small new African Democratic Party (ADP), says Mrs Mugabe’s “phenomenal rise to power” has astounded many who consider themselves her “intellectual and political superior”.
“Call her shrewd, power hungry or plain old ‘being in the right place at the right time’ – this typist has become a kingmaker in Zimbabwe’s succession politics,” she says.
“She is tenacious and determined; she is naive and unpolished; she is feared and has been known always to get what she wants.”