Until this year, the South African-born mother-of-four appeared to have her ambitions firmly set on her burgeoning business projects: her Alpha Omega dairy, set up on a seized white farm in Mazowe, central Zimbabwe. Her orphanage next door. Her private school at that orphanage, where fees – for those who pay them – are far from minimal.
State ZBC TV regularly films the First Lady showing visiting dignitaries and African leaders’ spouses round her state-of-the-art milking parlour or cuddling her charges. These images are far removed from the unfortunate ones taken of the president’s wife shopping in foreign capitals during Zimbabwe’s post-2000 crisis or – infamously – punching a photographer in Hong Kong in 2009.
Grace has reinvented herself – in ways very few Zimbabweans foresaw.
In July, five months after she threw her and President Robert Mugabe’s only daughter Bona a lavish US5 million wedding party, the First Lady burst onto Zimbabwe’s tumultuous political stage.
She was nominated to lead Zanu-PF’s women’s league, a position that automatically gives her a seat on the president’s Soviet-style politburo. Two months later, she was controversially awarded a PhD in sociology by the University of Zimbabwe, a move analysts believed hinted at the scale of Grace’s ambition.
The ruling party had long been able to taunt presidential hopeful Morgan Tsvangirai of the opposition Movement for Democratic for his lack of university education (Tsvangirai, who has lost three elections to Mugabe, now has two honorary PhDs). With her PhD already in the bag, Grace could make her intentions clear.
So did she want to be president? “People say I want to be president, why not? Am I not Zimbabwean?” she said in October.
Quickly, relentlessly, “Dr Amai” (Dr Mother) as Zimbabweans now jokingly refer to her set about dismantling the reputation of the one woman who stood in her way: Vice President Joice Mujuru, one of two main contenders to succeed the ageing president. Mujuru “stinks”, the First Lady told a rally in decidedly un-First Ladyish language: the vice president was corrupt, she wore a miniskirt in the presence of a young man, she had spoken ill of the first couple.
As bemused Zimbabweans watched, even buying a bottle of orange juice became a political statement. The most popular local brand is Mazoe Crush. But supporters of the First Lady seized on the squat plastic bottles as their mascots. For some time it’s been possible for Zimbabweans to quietly state their opposition to the Mugabes by boycotting Alpha Omega milk. Now locals’ choice of soft drink is similarly politically charged.
Food and the family were Grace’s themes long before her political ambitions were revealed. She enjoys growing her own vegetables. Not only that, she declared in a 2011 interview, she has taught her sons Bellarmine and Robert Junior to cook.
Bellarmine was born after the president married Grace in 1996. Robert and Bona were both born before the wedding, the result of Mugabe’s affair with his secretary while his wife Sally was dying from kidney disease. (Grace also has a son from a previous marriage).
“Every day I make it a point to thank VaMugabe for making me the First Lady of Zimbabwe,” Grace said in 2012. “He chose me, a village girl and made me his wife.”
Zimbabwe’s private press has speculated that Grace’s attacks on Mujuru were pre-scripted by her husband or the faction of Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, who stands to gain most from the vice president’s dismissal.
Grace insisted they weren’t. “I’ve got brains in my head. I don’t even have a day where I’ve approached the president to tell me what to say at rallies. I speak my mind,” she said two weeks ago.
On Thursday the former village girl swept next to her husband onto the flower-bedecked podium of the Zanu-PF congress. As the speaker of parliament Jacob Mudenda called her “mother of the nation, mother of revelations,” in his vote of thanks, it must have seemed her triumph was nearly complete.