In Depth

Grace Mugabe: the woman poised to take over Zimbabwe

President's wife has been criticised for her lavish lifestyle, but insists she is simply a misunderstood philanthropist

There is growing speculation that Zimbabwe's first lady is being groomed to take over the political reigns once Robert Mugabe finally relinquishes power.

Grace Mugabe has hinted that she would be up for the challenge, telling crowds at a rally last year: "Some say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not Zimbabwean too?"

But the 49-year old remains as divisive as her ageing husband.

Her relationship

Grace Marufu met Mugabe – over 40 years her senior – while working as a secretary at the state house during the late 1980s. Despite both being married, they embarked on an affair after the president "wooed her over tea and scones," according to the BBC. The couple conceived their first child while Mugabe's wife Sally was terminally ill in hospital, though he insists she gave them her blessing. After her death, the pair wed in an extravagant Catholic ceremony and went on to have two more children.  

Her career

Zimbabwe's first lady has an impressive CV; she is a powerful businesswoman, academic, and head of the ruling party's Women's League. Mrs Mugabe also views herself as a philanthropist, founding an orphanage for children near the capital Harare, albeit with Chinese funding.

She is well-known for sharing her husband's "spiky" rhetoric says The Guardian. During her acceptance speech at the women's wing, she told crowds: "I might have a small fist but when it comes to fighting I will put stones inside to enlarge it. Do not doubt my capabilities." 

But it is her academic career that has raised the most eyebrows, both at home and abroad. Last year, Mrs Mugabe was awarded a full doctorate in sociology from the University of Zimbabwe, despite their being no record of her registering for the degree and her thesis is yet to be made public. Critics argue her PhD is further evidence of her political aspirations.

Her lifestyle

Mrs Mugabe has her fair share of critics in the country, with opposition members nicknaming her "Gucci Grace" and "DisGrace" because of her appetite for extravagant shopping sprees. The first lady has a particular penchant for designer clothes and shoes, allegedly blowing $120,000 during a single trip to Paris.

In 2009, British photographer Richard Jones claimed that he had been assaulted by her and her bodyguards as he attempted to take pictures of her on a shopping trip in Hong Kong. Sunday Times correspondent Michael Sheridon, who witnessed the attack, told the Mail and Guardian: "The bodyguard grabbed Mr Jones, wrestled with him, attempted to take his camera. He then held him while Mrs Mugabe struck him in the face repeatedly." The two journalists said they were photographing Mrs Mugabe to show the "obvious contrast" between her extravagant lifestyle and the plight of millions of starving Zimbabweans back home.

But in an unusually candid documentary aired on South African television, Grace Mugabe accused the public and the media of misjudging her. "I'm not really what they say I am," she said. “I don't go for all these massages, I'm telling you; I work so hard I don't have time for all these things to pamper myself. I do my own clothes, I tie my own headscarf, those are very cheap fabrics I buy."

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