Few guessed that the first lady of Zimbabwe was quite so multi-talented. Last week, Grace Mugabe graduated with a PhD at the University of Zimbabwe. Her thesis, according to the state-owned Herald newspaper, was on the changing social structure and functions of the family.
The new Dr Mugabe’s CV already includes a dairy business, building a school and keeping her 90-year-old husband Robert seemingly immortal. Recently she has also dipped her toe into politics, accepting a nomination to lead the women’s league of the ruling party. Some say she might even succeed her spouse as president some day.
The dreadlocked 49-year-old is fast emerging as one of Africa’s most influential, impossible-to-ignore and divisive first ladies. Grace is loved by many of president Mugabe’s loyalists – and generally loathed by those who view him as dictator with blood on his hands after 34 years in power. They call her “DisGrace”.
Once a secretary in Mugabe’s office, she was thrust into the spotlight when it emerged that she had given birth to the president’s child while his first wife, Sally, lay bedridden due to a kidney ailment. Sally died in 1992. Mugabe has since claimed that Sally knew and approved of Grace, who was also married at the time.
After a Catholic wedding in 1996, her conduct has been justified in the eyes of the president’s supporters as a first lady’s entitlement, and bitterly criticised by the opposition who regard Grace as less than Amazing. These include reports of profligate shopping sprees – allegedly blowing $120,000 on one trip to Paris – grabbing a share in the violent seizure of white-owned farms and punching a British photographer in Hong Kong.
Like her husband, she is subject to EU and US sanctions and shares his knack for spiky rhetoric. In July, during her acceptance speech for the women’s league, she told a crowd of thousands at her farm: “I might have a small fist but when it comes to fighting I will put stones inside to enlarge it, or even put on gloves to make it bigger. Do not doubt my capabilities.”
Her hitherto unknown academic prowess has raised eyebrows. Past reports in Zimbabwe said she had dropped out of a correspondence course at the University of London after failing most of the exams with marks as low as 7%. Observers say her doctorate, which saw her capped by Mugabe at last week’s ceremony, has come with astounding speedthat few local academics could rival.
To many Zimbabweans, however, she is carefully portrayed as the loving wife, supporting the father of the nation, the only leader independent Zimbabwe has ever known. In an extraordinary documentary on South African TV last year, the couple were seen at dinner with two of their three children. Grace took her husband’s hand and told him: “You’re very loving, you’re kind, you’re generous, you kind of like brought me up and you know that I appreciate everything that I’ve been able to do.”
The president earned a kiss and prompted laughter around the table with his reply: “Please continue to love the children but of course, above all, to love this boyfriend called Robert Mugabe.”
And in a rare interview on the same programme, Grace insisted that she is woefully misunderstood. “I’m not really what they say I am,” she said. “I’m actually surprised to hear some of the things they say, that she’s a lazy person, she’s always eating. 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, then I sit down and design my own clothes.”