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To understand the coup in Zimbabwe, you need to know more about Grace Mugabe

- November 15, 2017

In Zimbabwe, the military has taken control of the capital, Harare, with tanks and troops stationed around the city. Army generals officially announced around 4 a.m. local time on Wednesday that President Robert Mugabe and his family “are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed.”

While Gen. Constantine Chiwenga insists it is not a military takeover, “safe and secure,” for those of us who study African politics, is also code for secured. This effectively means that the first family is now under some type of arrest and those closest to first lady Grace Mugabe, who until the takeover appeared to be in charge in the ruling party, have been arrested for attempting to recolonize the country and undermining the revolution.

This type of coup is called a “guardian coup.” The army, at least for now, claims that it has no intention of staying in power longer than is needed to restore order. It remains unclear what “restoring order” means.

How did Zimbabwe get here?

At the heart of Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis is the survival of the long-term ruling party ZANU-PF. In my work, I have argued that ZANU-PF survived in part because, as the country’s political and economic stability declined over the last decade, nearly a quarter of the adult population emigrated — leaving no one to challenge the ruling party. A weakening opposition facing a very strong, stable ZANU-PF made change unlikely.

However, recently ZANU-PF has fractured and destabilized. Why?

One person whose motives are central to the crisis is Grace Mugabe, 52.

Since the last election in 2013 and under Grace Mugabe’s leadership, ZANU-PF expelled key party members, including former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa — which appears to have triggered the army’s intervention.

For months, the capital has been rife with rumors about the deteriorating relationship between Mnangagwa and the Mugabe family. In October, after Mnangagwa fell ill at a ZANU-PF function, the first lady and president were forced to deny public allegations that they had poisoned him. But at the same time, Grace Mugabe began campaigning for Mnangagwa’s ouster. That was significant. Her public denunciations of ZANU-PF officials have in recent years preceded their demotion. For instance, in 2014, she gave speeches calling for the ouster of Vice President Joice Mujuru. Soon after, Mujuru was forced to quit both her Cabinet position and the party.

Who is Grace Mugabe?

At home and abroad, Grace Mugabe, like her husband, is a polarizing figure. Some Zimbabweans argue that she has no real power and that whatever influence she has will die with her 93-year-old husband. Others argue that she is an ambitious politician who could very well become the next leader of ZANU-PF and the nation. What are her real goals? It’s difficult to know because in Zimbabwe, media is tightly controlled by the state.

ZANU-PF was set to hold its annual congress before the end of 2017. There, many speculated, Mnangagwa’s firing would be the central event — and Grace Mugabe would be named vice president.

Grace Mugabe clearly wanted more power. In recent months, she suggested that the ZANU-PF constitution should be amended to mandate that one of the two vice presidents be a woman. On Nov. 5, she asked a crowd of churchgoers, “Would it be so wrong if I was elected?” and said, “Give me the job and see if I fail.” Women in Zimbabwe, as in much of the continent, continue to struggle for a political voice. An avalanche of sexist and misogynist attacks on the first lady — from men in both the ruling and opposition factions — has earned her a loyal following, despite the fact that, unlike her husband, she is brusque and to the point.

In a private Facebook group of over 30,000 Zimbabwean women, those loyal to Mugabe often comment that she is daring and hard-working — and argue that these traits intimidate men in politics, who resort to sexual attacks. In response, others argue that as a woman she should focus on philanthropic projects and leave politics to men.

Grace Mugabe’s public ambition emerged only recently. Before 2008, most international news coverage focused on her spending. Her love for designer apparel earned her the nickname Gucci Grace. Within Zimbabwe, state media covered her charity work and state duties. But in 2008, ahead of a March runoff election, she began headlining the party’s campaign events, beginning her transformation from first lady Grace to comrade Grace. She traded in her designer dresses for military clothing, complete with a beret and ZANU-PF’s trademark clenched fist.

Mugabe says things that the average politician would not dare to say, blending snark and sarcasm with biblical references. In less than two years as an active politician, she has brought down more than a dozen big men and women who have been at the heart of ZANU-PF’s survival. Unlike some other politicians, Mugabe appears to openly enjoy the fight, even laughing at her own jokes, and the audience often joins in her glee. Much like Sarah Palin, she reminds voters that she, like millions of women, is an ordinary, hard-working woman, a mother of the nation, who sometimes goes hungry in solidarity with suffering Zimbabweans — even though she is anything but ordinary. Through her control of the ZANU-PF youth and women’s leagues, Mugabe has a following of loyalists who find her straightforward “truth-telling” refreshing.

Grace Mugabe challenged the army. For now, at least, the army appears to have won.

But apparently the combination of Mnangagwa’s firing and Mugabe’s open thirst for power disturbed the generals.

In a speech on Nov. 11, Chiwenga had asked the president to rein in Grace Mugabe. Instead the president — and, most likely, the first lady — had a youth leader give a speech that accused the general of embezzling diamond revenue worth more than $15 billion. That appears to have been the last straw for the army, triggering the coup.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the coup was the first post-independence coup in southern Africa.

Chipo Dendere is a postdoctoral fellow at Amherst College, where she teaches political science. She studies the relationship between migration and democratization; factors that influence political transitions; and vote choice, identity, public opinion and political behavior. Follow her on Twitter at @drDendere.