Zimbabwean First Lady Grace Mugabe, right, is seen with her husband Robert Mugabe at a rally in Gweru, Zimbabwe. File picture: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

Pretoria – Standing by his wife in her blatant bid to succeed him was probably the greatest mistake Robert Mugabe made in the nearly four decades he was president of Zimbabwe.

Mugabe’s trademark raised clenched fist aptly describes his 37 years in office – a reign typified by resistance, stubborness, authority, unity, force, and callousness. It was his decision to sack his deputy, also in the race for leadership, at the urging of Grace that may prove to be his downfall.

At the fall of white minority rule with the 1980 general elections, a charismatic Mugabe led his Zanu PF party to resounding victory. Whether by hook or by crook, Mugabe has since clung to power firmly and events in Harare this week are by far the most significant threat to end his rule. 

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on 21 February,1924, just four months after Southern Rhodesia became a British colony, to parents Gabriel Matibiri and Bona Mugabe.

His father worked as a carpenter at the Kutama Jesuit Mission but in 1934 when the young Robert was just 10, his father left in apparent search for work, heading to the city of Bulawayo. Word is that Mugabe senior remarried and started a family while in Bulawayo, abandoning his first family and leaving Robert deeply despondent. Bona was left to fend for four children on her own. 

Unlike most of his compatriots at the time, Robert Mugabe was one of the few people in Southern Rhodesia who received a quality education at a time the country was engulfed in deep racism, inequality and separation.

Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace. File photo: ANA

Mugabe attended school at the elite St. Francis Xavier Kutama College, and went on to become a school teacher. He later received a scholarship to study at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and English in 1951. 

In 1957 Mugabe moved to newly-independent Ghana to take up a job as a teacher. It was in Ghana that he met his first wife Sally Hayfron, while he was working at the St. Mary's Teacher Training College. 

On his return to Southern Rhodesia in 1960 – apparently to introduce Hayfron to Bona, Mugabe was displeased with the heavy crackdown on dissent in his home country by the ruling white government.

He reportedly spoke fondly about the independence he had experienced in Ghana, and the tenets of equality based on the principles of Marxism which he had now embraced. This was the birth of Robert Mugabe’s long and tenacious political career. 

Among the notable positions in his fledgling political career, Mugabe was roped into the National Democratic Party which was launching different means of resistance against white minority rule in 1960. Mugabe was elected as the party’s publicity secretary. He resigned from his teaching post in Ghana and concentrated on his rising political career. That political career was to earn him 11 years as a political prisoner under Ian Smith’s Rhodesian government from 1964. 

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Mugabe later rose to lead the Zimbabwe African National Union movement and was one of the key negotiators in the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement, which led to the 1980 elections and the creation of a fully democratic Zimbabwe. Elected prime minister after the polls, and later president, Mugabe preached the gospel of conciliation with the country’s white minority and former oppressors, but sidelined his rivals through political maneuvering and force. 

Mugabe’s wife Sally died of kidney disease in 1992. In 1996, Mugabe married his former secretary. Zimbabwe's First Lady Grace Ntombizodwa Mugabe is 41 years his junior.

President Robert Mugabe, left, chats with his wife, Grace, while his vice-president, Phelekezela Mphoko, right, looks on during a solidarity rally in Harare. Picture: AP

Born in Benoni, South Africa, Grace had previously been married to Air Force of Zimbabwe pilot Stanley Goreraza, with whom she had a son Russel Goreraza. Grace became involved with Mugabe, while she was still married to Goreraza and the president’s secretary. It was not long before Grace earned the nickname "Gucci Grace" owing to her penchant for shopping and an expensive taste.

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In 2014, Grace got the post of leader of ZANU-PF women’s league. Using that position and proximity to Mugabe, she hatched presidential ambition and in a political career moving at lightning speed, she convinced Mugabe to sack Vice President Joice Mujuru. Backed by her influential faction in Zanu PF, known as the Generation 40 or G40, the highly vocal Grace has been instrumental in the ousting of several alternative potential successors to her husband's presidency. 

But the G40 faction bit off more than it could swallow when it convinced Mugabe this month to fire Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa from Zanu-PF and the government, accusing him of disloyalty. In the days after Mnangagwa’s removal and his escape into exile, Grace won the support of several key structures of ZANU PF to fill Mnangagwa’s shoes as vice president of Zimbabwe.

At least, that was until today when the army seized control and placed her and Mugabe under house arrest. Grace is now rumoured to have fled to Namibia and Zimbabwe awaits the next shock: the possible resignation of Robert Mugabe.