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Power Battle over Mugabe's Body Underscores Struggles for Family 


Former first lady of Zimbabwe, Grace Mugabe pays her last respects during a state funeral of her husband and Zimbabwe's longtime ruler Robert Mugabe, at the national sports stadium in Harare, Sept. 14, 2019.

Weeping, she followed his casket, her footsteps heavy, her body draped in black lace.

In public, Grace Mugabe has been the picture of the dignified, dutiful widow since her husband, former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, died earlier this month at the age of 95.

But behind the scenes lies a tale of personalities, power and politics, as salacious details leak out while the government and the Mugabe family negotiate with increasing bitterness about the fate of the leader’s body. It has become a battle of power going well beyond Grace Mugabe and her family to reach the highest levels of Zimbabwe’s complicated struggle for power.

Derek Matyszak, a Harare-based governance consultant, saic the fulcrum was in 2017, as speculation grew that the ailing leader wanted to install his much younger wife in his place. Amid this tension, Mugabe — allegedly under pressure from Grace — fired his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Three weeks later, Mnangagwa used the military to pressure Mugabe to resign.

Throughout, Matyszak said, it was critical for Mnangagwa to paint the power transition as a peaceful, voluntary one. Mugabe himself disputed that, calling it an “outright coup” — words that have hurt Mnangagwa’s legitimacy.

But now that Mugabe is dead, Matyszak said, the gloves are off between him and Grace Mugabe.

“She's in a very weakened position from how she was before Mugabe's death," Matyszak told VOA. "It was very expedient for Mnangagwa to continue to extol Mugabe as a liberation icon. ...So, Mnangagwa has been at pains to say that all is well between him and Mugabe, and to try and present that face to the world and to the regional leaders. The problem has always been, of course, Grace Mugabe, because many people believe that it was because of Grace Mugabe that Mnangagwa was fired from office by Robert Mugabe. ... But out of deference to Mugabe and because of that expediency, Grace was largely left alone.”

Former president Robert Mugabe's two sons Chatunga Mugabe, center, and Robert Mugabe Junior, right, accompany his casket in an air force helicopter for transport to a stadium where it will lie in state, in Harare, Zimbabwe, Sept. 13, 2019.

Although most of these conversations have occurred behind closed doors, tantalizing details have leaked out as funeral plans have changed multiple times and the family appears to be resisting the government’s wishes to bury Mugabe in the national Heroes’ Acre cemetery.

The state-run Herald newspaper this week reported that the ruling party owns Mugabe’s Harare mansion, a revelation widely seen as an attempt by the ruling party to exert leverage on the family. The same day, the family without explanation called off plans to send the body to Mugabe’s rural village. The family most recently said the burial would take place in 30 days — a move that could be seen as buying time.

Grace Mugabe has few places to go. She faces arrest in South Africa for allegedly assaulting a South African model with an electrical extension cord in 2017. And she’s under sanctions and travel bans from the European Union and the United States.

Family member Leo Mugabe said her future is straightforward. He spoke to VOA on the sidelines of Mugabe’s public viewing in Harare. VOA asked the family for an interview with Grace Mugabe, but they did not respond to the request.

“She’s a Zimbabwean. She has no reason to go anywhere," he told VOA. "She will be at her house, and I’m sure she will start to do her normal work that she has always been doing before: her farm, and her business.”

She also faces legal problems at home, and Zimbabwe’s notoriously politicized judiciary means those problems may resurface, said Matyszak.

“There are charges relating to ivory smuggling which are out there," he said. "And these things suddenly gain a new lease of life any time the Mugabes venture into politics. She certainly needs to to keep a low profile, and I think she might find things a little bit uncomfortable.”

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