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Ex-first lady Grace Mugabe warms up to Mnangagwa

President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace attend a rally of his ruling ZANU (PF) in Chinhoyi

The last time former first lady Grace Mugabe made a public statement was on November 5, 2017 at Rufaro Stadium in Harare.

At an event dubbed “Super Sunday” in some quarters, she gathered thousands of followers of various apostolic sects for what was ostensibly a religious-themed meeting but was in reality supposed to drive the final nail into then vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s political coffin.

Ironically, it turned out to be the beginning of the end for her and her husband, the late former president Robert Mugabe.

At the time, Grace was at the height of her powers: a highly influential first lady who had already put paid to the career of another vice president, Joice Mujuru.

Her eyes were firmly set on the scalp of Mnangagwa.

Immediately after Grace publicly lambasted Mnangagwa for the umpteenth time on Super Sunday, Mugabe sacked his deputy and all seemed set for the elevation of the first lady to the second highest post in the country.

That triggered a chain of events that saw Mnangagwa flee Zimbabwe, the military stage a coup that toppled Mugabe, and Mnangagwa return home as President of the Republic.

Since then, the Mugabes distanced themselves from the Mnangagwa regime and even openly supported his main rival, Nelson Chamisa, in the first post-coup elections in 2018.

Fast forward to May 2024 and Grace is back in the public eye. She toured and endorsed one of Mnangagwa’s landmark projects, the Museum of African Liberation in Harare.

The museum is part of a 101ha development dubbed Liberation City being spearheaded by the Institute of African Knowledge (Instak), which also includes a mall, an amusement and game park, presidential villas, a five-star hotel and African-themed restaurants.

Mnangagwa has been the prime backer of the project, and local as well as international dignitaries flock to tour it almost weekly.

So close is the Museum of African Liberation to Mnangagwa’s heart that he plans to take southern African leaders there when Zimbabwe hosts the Sadc summit in August this year.

Instak says the museum is a means of preserving and promoting Africa’s liberation legacy. But since construction started in 2020, the big question was how it would honour the same Mugabe who fought a bitter struggle for supremacy with Mnangagwa and came out on the losing end.

Then on May 14, 2024, Grace stunned many by not only visiting the museum, but also endorsing it and indicating the family would discuss which Mugabe memorabilia they would donate for exhibition.

She was accompanied by close relatives of her late husband – one-time Mines minister Walter Chidhakwa, ex-deputy chief of police Innocent Matibiri and former legislator Leo Mugabe.

In remarks that were a far cry from her combative persona of the first lady years, Grace spoke in a poised and articulate manner about the importance of the Museum of African Liberation, underscoring the need “to ensure that we put up the proper and right narrative about this continent”.

“A lot, in terms of our history, has been put out there and as I said distorted, but the children, if we don’t correct the distorted history in this manner, they will not know exactly who they are, their identity and who they represent,” she said, after being taken around the museum by Instak board chairperson Simbi Mubako.

Mubako told the media: “As you know, he (Mugabe) liberated this country, unfortunately, he passed away before the museum concept was realised.

“Now that it is ongoing, we can only honour him by inviting his widow and his family here.

“And they are bringing with them the promise of his artefacts which he used during the liberation struggle, and as you have heard, they have a significant number of them.

“Such artefacts must be preserved in a museum where the whole world can see them, rather than keeping them confined to a family home.”

But what has changed between Super Sunday and today?

Is all forgiven? Is Mnangagwa desperate for endorsement of the Museum of African Liberation by the Mugabes?

Or is Grace merely trying to protect her business interests in a country notorious for the propensity by its political leadership to financially decimate its rivals?

Going by the sentiments expressed by various Zimbabweans on social media in the wake of Grace’s unexpected tour and glowing remarks, it could be a combination of factors.

“She (Grace) has been inching back bit by bit,” pointed out X user Rex Mokili.

“She was there at (Mnangagwa’s September 2023) inauguration and at (Vice President Constantino) Chiwenga’s wedding.”

Before last year’s elections, Robert Mugabe Junior attended Mnangagwa’s rallies and chanted Zanu-PF slogans.

Other social media users said Grace was looking to protect her family and businesses, while some said she was probably just being pragmatic seeing as her husband was a prominent liberation leader.

Previously, history lecturer at Great Zimbabwe University Ngonidzashe Marongwe said Mnangagwa was going all out to be seen as the unifier who kept the ruling Zanu-PF party together following the ructions of 2017.

“For Mnangagwa, it is about the perception of being seen as a unifier, which augurs well with his power consolidation and the mantra of ‘leaving no one behind’, and to mend old cracks within ZANU-PF,” Marongwe has said.

“For Grace, she has a lot of interests to protect. She has not got much choice, except to be seen to have forgiven Mnangagwa and Chiwenga. It is more for the cameras.”

Mnangagwa himself has publicly extended the olive branch to Grace.

At Chiwenga’s December 2023 wedding ceremony, he said, “History is history. It cannot be changed. I am happy you have come. You are part of us. Never feel that you are not part of us.”

Whether it is part of a power consolidation strategy by Mnangagwa or a self-preservation tactic by Grace – or a mix of both – the Museum of African Liberation will not mind: it has secured Mugabe memorabilia for exhibition.

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