Gucci Grace tables turn

Grace Mugabe: How the tables finally turned on Zimbabwe's spendthrift first lady

The Telegraph (UK) by Peta Thornycroft

19 November 2017

President Robert Mugabe listens to his wife Grace Mugabe at a rally of his ruling ZANU-PF party in Harare Credit: REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

In the end, it will be all about the money.  How much one of Africa’s richest and greediest women will get to keep of her dubiously acquired gains now rests on the embittered enemies who plotted yesterday’s spectacular downfall of Grace Mugabe, still — just — Zimbabwe’s first lady.

As the generals behind Zimbabwe’s coup negotiated Robert Mugabe’s enforced departure, immunity from prosecution for the first couple and just how much cash the president gets to keep to sustain his wife’s lavish lifestyle will be high on the agenda.

For a woman whose arrogance was as legendary as her temper was feared, Grace Mugabe’s downfall on Sunday was every bit as humiliating as her husband’s but even more complete. 

Grace Mugabe 2013 interview: 'The only thing I've bought in Harrods is almond nuts'

In the capital Harare, the central committee of Zanu-PF, the ruling party that once indulged every whim of the Mugabes, met to extract their revenge against a woman as hated in the echelons of power as she was on the streets of Zimbabwe.

For Mr Mugabe, the chairman of the meeting, Obert Mpofu, could muster some words of praise, recalling his “many memorable achievements” even as the committee stripped him of his leadership of the party.

For Mrs Mugabe, there was only scorn.

She stood accused of “preaching hate, divisiveness and assuming roles and powers not delegated to office,” Mr Mpofu pronounced.

Worse, she and her close associates “have taken full advantage of his condition” to loot the country’s national resources — making it apparent that Mrs Mugabe rather than her husband would be held accountable for the plundering of Zimbabwe.

As delegates clapped and hooted, the first lady was expelled both from the party and her role as head of its woman’s league, a title she had appointed to hold “forever” in more fawning days.

Moving from obsequiousness to obloquy in a short week, even the Zanu-PF youth league, from where she drew her most fanatical support, accused her of being the leader of a gang of “criminals” and demanded that her expulsion last “forever”.

If he finally accepts resignation, Robert Mugabe may yet emerge with his reputation intact, revered as an elder statesman by a forgiving country.

For Mrs Mugabe it appeared there would be no way back, her fate sealed as a deeply reviled figure, the Imelda Marcos of Zimbabwe.

The intimidating aura that once surrounded her was gone, the former typist who caught the eye of her husband, 41 years her senior, while his first wife was dying now facing a future of ignominy and infamy.

While some will question whether she should bear responsibility for her husband's sins as well as her own, many Zimbabweans will argue that she richly deserves her fall — one brought about by her attempt to manoeuvre herself into Mr Mugabe’s shoes.

Zimbabweans called her Gucci Grace, awestruck and outraged in equal measure at her ostentation, bullying and larceny on a scarcely believable scale.

The bullying manifested itself most recently when, in September, she allegedly used an electric cable to beat up a model who had become too familiar with her sons in a Johannesburg hotel room. But it is her vast wealth that will preoccupy Zimbabweans now.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s president-in-waiting and her most hated rival is almost certain to want to repossess Mrs Mugabe’s vast assets, particularly her vulnerable property empire, much of which by right belongs to the Zimbabwean state.

Few politicians in Zimbabwe benefitted as much as she from the acquisition of farmland once owned by whites until Mr Mugabe embarked on his financially ruinous policy to seize them, supposedly in the name of equitable land redistribution.

She and her husband seized tens of thousands of acres of prime farm land, accumulating an empire, said to stretch across 20 farms,which even outstripped that of Tiny Rowland, the former head of Lonrho and once Zimbabwe’s biggest landowner.

Her first target was the Iron Mask Estate, a 3,000 acre farm regarded as the most beautiful and fertile in the Mazowe Valley and owned by an elderly couple, John and Eva Matthews.

In August 2002, she arrived at the farm wielding a pistol and accompanied by senior army officers, perhaps including some involved in the coup that brought her downfall.

She had the police arrest Mr Matthews, who was 78 at the time, and brusquely ordered black farmers out of their homes. 

“I was told that I had 48 hours to get off the farm and if they found me here after that they would lock me up straight away,” Mr Matthews told the Daily Telegraph as he packed up his belongings the following day.

Iron Mask was not enough for a woman whose hunger for land could never be sated. She seized some from a black high court judge whom himself had taken a white-owned farm.

First Lady Grace Mugabe attending the opening of the annual agricultural fair in the capital Harare in August 2017 Credit: JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

But she was never an astute businesswoman.

Despite spending millions of pounds building vanity projects, from schools for the elite to office blocks and luxury houses, many soon floundered — and she allegedly ran up a £20 million overdraft in the process.

In theory the farms belonged to the government because Mr Mugabe changed the constitution in 2005 to make all land the property of the state, but she never saw it that way, except to ensure that her workers were paid by the government.

Once-thriving farms turned to dust.

A dairy she seized largely collapsed after her herd starting to produce milk infected with pus because she had no idea about how to take basic precautions to prevent mastitis. 

There were acquisitions abroad too, with the purchase of a mansion in one of Johannesburg’s richest suburbs at a reported cost of £3m and a three-storey flat in Hong Kong she claims was illegally seized from her.

But most of the time has been spent in the gaudy blue-tiled mansion she insisted her husband build at a cost of £10m. Not for her the residence of British governors of yore. 

She wanted something bigger, better, more suited to a woman who spent £1m on a diamond ring bought from a gem trader in Dubai. 

Almost certainly destined for exile, Mrs Mugabe is likely to have to embrace a more modest lifestyle in the future.

Zimbabweans will have little sympathy — better that than a prison cell, a fate likely to await the once powerful political allies who thought her future as president was assured.

Additional reporting by Adrian Blomfield