This article is part of a series that will be released before the end of 2015, drawing from The Contour‘s annual print issue titled Upheaval, Revolution & Tragedy: The World of 2015, which can be found online at The Contour: Print Edition
In 2014, amid the Zimbabwean president’s decline and bitter distrust among the ruling party as to who will take his place, a new figure emerged — First Lady Grace Mugabe. Virtually unconsidered in politics before, Grace Mugabe is now one of the most prominent figures in Zimbabwe — and perhaps all of Africa.
Her political presence started in 2014, when she received a PhD. in sociology from the University of Zimbabwe in a few short months. Within weeks, she was launching her own political rallies in a “Meet the Nation” tour and, last December, snagged a leadership role in the politburo of the ruling party, Zanu-PF. Throughout her rise to power, she has denounced many senior officials, including former vice president Joice Mujuru. Some in Zimbabwe see Mugabe’s rise as a precedent to a purge of corruption; others believe it coincided with the removal of political opponents. The motivations behind her sudden emergence are also unclear, but a need to consolidate Mugabe leadership (her husband entered power in 1980) is cited as a key factor. She has not yet declared an intention to run for president, but has not ruled out the possibility.
The increase in her political presence is augmented by her philanthropic efforts, which have made her arguably the biggest philanthropist in Zimbabwe. She is the patron of Danhiko, an organization for support of the disabled, and regularly attends the paralympic games held there. She is also the founder of an orphanage in Mazowe supporting children adopted from all parts of the country. The orphanage has been visited just this December by Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese president Xi Jinping, in a potentially diplomatic move.
Her rise has not been without its controversies. Before her meteoric rise in 2014, she was considered by many to be a glorified trophy wife, quietly raising her children in the shadow of the presidency. She became notorious for hundred-thousand dollar shopping sprees in Europe and the U.S. She, along with her husband, is under personal sanctions (in which individuals are denied certain goods by a foreign entity) by the E.U. and the U.S. Her commentary, both controversial and sexist, includes the recent claim that ‘miniskirts invite rape’. Some even view her sudden political inclinations as simply a desperate attempt at preserving her current standard of living. Her detractors call her “DisGrace” or “Gucci Grace”, viewing her as pampered and lazy.
But Grace Mugabe has made it clear that she is prepared to take action and make a name for herself independent of her husband’s persona. Calling herself “thick-skinned as a crocodile”, she is more than prepared to defend herself and her ideas and not afraid to stray into controversial waters. Once content to sit in the background, modest and reserved, Grace now begins to show a tenacious streak and sharp tongue. For better or worse, she is poised to become a major name not just in Africa, but around the world.
by Katherine Xiong ’19