At a church meeting last week in Harare, Zimbabwe's verdant capital city, Grace Mugabe, 52, made a request of her nonagenarian husband Robert, who has run the country for the past 37 years.
“I say to Mr. Mugabe, you should … leave me to take over your post. Have no fear,” she said. “If you want to give me the job, give it to me freely.”
Mr. Mugabe was — until an apparent coup on Wednesday, a day that will go down in Zimbabwean history — the world's oldest leader. He managed to stay in power for almost four decades thanks to an extraordinary amassing of executive authorities, brutal crackdowns on opposition groups and ethnic minorities, and electoral fraud, but also an abiding respect among much of his country's people and armed forces in particular for his role in the guerrilla war that overthrew oppressive white rule in the late 1970s.
Grace Mugabe does not command that respect, nor is she seen as an heir to her husband's anti-colonial revolution. That heir apparent is Emmerson Mnangagwa, until last week the vice president of Zimbabwe. Of Mnangagwa, Grace Mugabe said last week: “The snake must be hit on the head.” A day later, her husband unceremoniously dismissed him, forcing him into exile.
It now seems Ms. Mugabe's impatience to sideline Mnangagwa was a calamitous miscalculation. Zimbabwe's security forces, long loyal to Robert Mugabe, have made it clear through their takeover that they find the possibility of a Mugabe dynasty, led by Grace, to be repulsive. The Mugabes may have also underestimated Mnangagwa's thirst for power, and the depth of his connections with the military. He is known as one of the most cunning politicians in Zimbabwe, and has been designing his ascendance for decades.
After taking charge of the country's state broadcaster, Maj. Gen. Sibusiso Moyo, chief of staff logistics, made a reference on live television many believed was aimed at Grace Mugabe.
“We are only targeting criminals around [President Mugabe] who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice,” said Moyo. “As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.”
Grace Mugabe has little public support, let alone support from the real kingmakers: the security apparatus. She is notoriously loose-lipped and prone to challenging potential political opponents in outrageous and profane public speeches. She (and her two sons) are also brazenly profligate in a country where the economy has all but imploded. She wears Gucci sunglasses and reportedly bought a Rolls-Royce. She spent more than a million dollars on a diamond ring for her husband — who is sometimes referred to as “Old Bob” — and then sued the jeweler claiming inferior quality. One son, Bellarmine, recently used Snapchat to flaunt a watch and bracelet.
"$60,000 on the wrist when your daddy run the whole country ya know!!!" he wrote. Subsequent videos showed him pouring champagne over the watch.
Recently, she was accused of barging into a Johannesburg hotel room where her sons were hanging out with a 20-year-old South African model, Gabriella Engles. Mugabe allegedly whipped Engles with an extension cord, scarring the model's forehead, but South Africa allowed Mugabe to return home instead of appearing before a court because it granted her diplomatic immunity. She denies the allegations.
South Africa has long stood behind Robert Mugabe, but after Wednesday's developments, it seemed that they were cautiously preparing to deal with a new government. South African President Jacob Zuma said he'd talked to Mugabe by phone, and reported he was “confined” but “fine.” High-level envoys are en route from South Africa to Zimbabwe, though Mnangagwa remains, for the time being, in South Africa.
Rumors spread like wildfire on Wednesday that Grace Mugabe was not together with her husband under house arrest, but instead either on a previously organized business trip in Namibia, or that the military had allowed her to seek asylum in that neighboring country. Those reports remained unsubstantiated into Wednesday evening.
Either way, Grace Mugabe's trademark fieriness seems to have extinguished itself.
A message widely circulated in Zimbabwe on the popular WhatsApp messaging platform contained the line, “An army coup is better than a bedroom coup.”