Grace under fire: A first lady's ambition cut short

Robert Mugabe: What you need to know
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Story highlights

  • Grace Mugabe went from being Mugabe's mistress to a potent political force
  • The firing of Vice President Mnangagwa was considered the last obstacle in her path to the presidency

(CNN)Grace Mugabe had the world at her feet, a national airline at her disposal for shopping jaunts around the world, where she stayed at luxury hotels without a care for the staggering cost. Her husband Robert Mugabe was president, and she was inching ever closer to assuming the reins of power once the 93-year-old was ready to relinquish them.

Now, after Mugabe's decision to face reality and step down from office, her fate is in the hands of her political opponents and her whereabouts unknown. A woman on the verge so close to having her political desires fulfilled, Grace Mugabe's future is now in turmoil.
Her woes are reminiscent of another first lady who had also nursed presidential ambitions: Isabel Peron, the third wife of Argentinian strongman Juan Peron, who was 35 years her senior.
    How Zimbabwe's Mugabe came to power
    How Zimbabwe's Mugabe came to power

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    How Zimbabwe's Mugabe came to power 04:56
    Like Isabel Peron, Grace Mugabe worked to fill the shoes of a beloved and deceased presidential spouse before her. Sally Mugabe, who died of kidney failure in 1992, was remembered for fighting alongside her husband against white rule in Zimbabwe, at one point spending six weeks in prison herself.
    "I'm old enough to remember the death of Juan Peron in Argentina, and it's the closest parallel that I can think of," says Geoff Hill, author of "What Happens After Mugabe."
    Peron's second wife, the charismatic Eva, or Evita, cast a shadow over Isabel Peron's leadership aspirations, but Isabel managed to become vice president to her husband and ruled after his death for nearly two years. She was investigated for corruption and embezzlement, and calls for impeachment grew louder until she was deposed and arrested by the military. She was kept under house arrest and eventually cast into exile in Spain.
    Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe (L) with his wife Grace Mugabe at a youth rally on June 2, 2017.
    Zimbabwe's military weren't going to wait that long before moving on Grace Mugabe.
    "It became clear as Bob became more frail that they were getting into an end game that had to be sorted out internally," Hill says. Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa was the last obstacle standing in Grace Mugabe's way to take over.
    "When Mugabe fired Mnangagwa, and fired him from the [political Zanu-PF] party, it became quite clear there would be a coup," he says. "That was Emersson essentially stepping in to stop Grace from taking the top job."

    'Give me the job and I will do it very well'

    "Grace Mugabe clearly wanted more power," wrote Chipo Dendere, a postdoctoral fellow at Amherst College in the Washington Post. "In the last months, she suggested that the Zanu-PF constitution should be amended to mandate that one of the two vice presidents be a woman."
    Dendere pointed to a speech on November 5, when Grace Mugabe told a rally that she was ready to take over from her husband. "So I have said to the president: You can also leave me in charge. Give me the job and I will do it very well because I am good. I can do a great job."
    She said the First Lady has several thousand supporters, especially among women, who think she is "daring and hard working." They argue, writes Dendere, "that these traits intimidate men in politics who resort to sexual attacks."
    Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe (C), flanked by his wife Grace Mugabe (L) and daughter Bona (R), blows out the candles on a cake celebrating his 92nd birthday.
    Her ambition became clearer in 2008, Dendere said, in the days leading up to a runoff election. Dubbed "Gucci Grace" for her lavish shopping sprees and fondness for designer clothing and shoes, she "traded her designer dresses for military clothing, complete with a beret and Zanu-PF's trademark clenched fist."
    She took over the party's youth and women's leagues and spent the following years angling for a cabinet position, campaigning against incumbents and succeeding in eliminating prospective rivals, including in 2014, then vice-president Joice Mujuru and seven government ministers.

    Luxury in exile?

    Grace Mugabe's affair with the president while his first wife was in treatment for cancer, the children they had together who went to school with backpacks stitched with the name 'Mugabe' on them -- an open secret at the time -- made her deeply unpopular with Zimbabweans, said Hill.
    Coupled with her profligate spending, "splurging on shopping trips, paying no customs duties when bringing her goods back, sometimes hijacking, taking over the whole plane of the national airline, saying 'I'm taking it shopping,' and the passengers standing at the airport because the president's wife decided to take the plane for the day. When people are hungry and don't have running water, this is quite a big thing."
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    Robert Mugabe: What you need to know

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    Robert Mugabe: What you need to know 01:58
    Whatever the outcome of the transition from Robert Mugabe to his successor, the prospect of exile will proffer few options for the former President's family. Their sons boast of their luxurious lives on social media; in September two Rolls Royces were seen in the streets of Harare, new additions to a fleet that includes Porsches, Range Rovers and Mercedes Benz, and they live in multi-million dollar homes. Mugabe is already reported to have siphoned millions of dollars into overseas banks, and Mnangagwa's complicity in Mugabe's rule means the 93-year-old leader is unlikely to have those assets stripped away.
    They may not find a warm welcome, Hill says, in Botswana, Malawi, or South Africa, which is home to millions of anti-Mugabe Zimbabweans, and where Grace Mugabe faces legal woes for an alleged assault.
    Hill believes Namibia is one option. "It has all the same shops and virtually the same currency as South Africa, a pretty good climate, he'd be pretty comfortable," he said. If the family were allowed to stay in Zimbabwe, they would probably be permitted to live in Mugabe's home district of Zvimba, a rural area where the president has a multi-million dollar residence.
    "That's where his chief lives, that's where he grew up, he would be out of circulation and he could probably live quite easily and he'd be out of public focus and very quickly forgotten," Hill told CNN.
    But there was one drawback, he noted.
    "There's no Tiffany's in Zvimba," he said. "I don't think Grace will be particularly happy."