HARARE, Zimbabwe, November 8 — Zimbabwe’s first lady has moved a dramatic step closer to succeeding her husband as leader. President Robert Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state, this week fired long-time deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa, removing the man long seen as the front-runner to take power when the 93-year-old Mugabe moves on.
The increasingly outspoken Grace Mugabe, who has survived a number of scandals, now looks poised to become one of the country’s two vice presidents. Here are five things to know about her:
Grace Mugabe was a secretary in the president’s office when the two began an affair while Robert Mugabe was married to his first wife, Sally. Grace and the president had two children while his wife was ailing from the kidney failure that killed her in 1992. Grace split with her own husband, and her wedding to the president in 1996 was attended by Nelson Mandela and other African leaders.
The 52-year-old South African-born first lady has seen her profile rise in the past few years and in recent months has fiercely defended her ailing husband, declaring that he should run “as a corpse” in next year’s election if he dies before the vote.
THE ASSAULT ALLEGATIONS
The first lady caused outrage earlier this year when a South African model accused her of whipping her with an extension cord in a Johannesburg hotel room. Grace Mugabe was granted diplomatic immunity by South Africa despite calls for her prosecution. She later accused the 20-year-old of being the aggressor.
In 2009, the first lady escaped charges through diplomatic immunity after allegedly assaulting a British journalist who tried to photograph her while she was shopping in Hong Kong.
“Her controversies will not do much to stop her. In (the ruling party) ZANU-PF, they seem to be accepting her as her husband’s successor. The problem might be getting the support of other Zimbabweans who feel she is simply not presidential material,” said Harare-based political analyst Alex Rusero.
Despite an often abrasive manner, Grace Mugabe’s commanding presence and charity work have won support from some Zimbabweans. But while she often displays her charitable side, talking about how she takes care of orphans at a farm near the capital, Harare, she also faces criticism for lavish personal spending.
Last month, the first lady approached a Harare court to recover over $1 million she said she paid to a Lebanese for a 100-carat diamond ring. Such actions have frustrated many in the once-prosperous southern African nation whose economy has fallen apart in recent years.
THE GROWING POWER
The first lady emerged to become her husband’s chief defender in 2014, when she led the firing of Joice Mujuru, a vice president and potential successor to the president. The same year, Grace Mugabe was appointed to head the ruling party’s women’s league.
In recent weeks the first lady and her husband had openly criticized Mnangagwa, a long-time ally of the president. On Sunday, she said the vice president should be fired for allegedly plotting to oust her husband, while displaying her own presidential ambitions.
“So I have said to the president, you can also leave me in charge. You can also give me your position. Give me the job and I will do it very well because I am good. I can do a great job,” she said.
In July, the first lady broke taboo and openly told her husband to choose a successor, saying it would “enable all members to rally behind one candidate.”
Mugabe has said he wants to rule for life, although he has showed signs of trouble walking and has traveled to Singapore frequently for medical attention. He has not publicly indicated a successor.
But with Mnangagwa’s firing, some ruling party officials were openly advocating for the first lady to take his place. “The only person possessing such qualities is the leader of the women’s league, none other than her excellency Dr. Grace Mugabe,” youth league leader Kudzai Chipanga told reporters.
While the first lady may have to contend with other longtime allies of the president, including military commanders who served during the fight for independence from white rule, party provincial assemblies already have asked for the expulsion of dozens of senior party members who supported Mnangagwa.