Johannesburg - A recent scandal in South Africa involving Zimbabwe’s first lady has focused new attention on one of Africa’s biggest questions: Who will succeed Robert Mugabe, the world’s oldest leader?
Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 and is now 93. Nevertheless, he says he will be the ruling party’s candidate in the next elections in 2018, which raises the possibility of him being 99 at the end of yet another term.
But even the aesthetic teetotaller, who is said to rise at 4 am to do exercises, cannot go on forever. Already Mugabe has been seen dozing off at meetings, or in one case repeating a speech he had read out previously.
The eventual departure of Zimbabwe’s leader could cause chaos in southern Africa, with rival factions in the ruling party and the long-suppressed opposition all vying for power.
Mugabe’s long tenure is partly down to the respect in which he is still held in much of the continent as a legendary liberation leader. But he has also skilfully divided both his allies and enemies, refusing to designate a successor who could be a threat.
This has created dangerous divisions in the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), the ruling party since independence.
Mugabe’s second wife Grace, 40 years his junior, whose beauty turned his head when she was a married receptionist at State House in the 1980s, grabbed headlines in August when she was accused of beating a fashion model with an extension cord in a luxury hotel in Johannesburg.
The 20-year-old South African model filed assault charges, saying Grace hit her with the plug at the end of an extension cord, allegedly causing a large gash in her forehead, as she waited with two friends to meet one of the Mugabe’s playboy sons in the hotel.
Grace, 52, returned home after the Pretoria government controversially granted her diplomatic immunity.
It was not the only time that Grace’s fiery temper has provoked scandal. She allegedly beat up a British photographer in Hong Kong in 2009 as her bodyguards held his arms.
For many years after marrying Mugabe in 1996, Grace was the decorative wife. But since 2014 she has aggressively entered politics and is head of the Zanu-PF Women’s League.
This move is thought to be prompted as much by fear of what will happen when Mugabe dies as a desire for power. She is unpopular with many Zimbabweans and has nicknames including “DisGrace” or the “First Shopper” after her penchant for extravagant overseas shopping expeditions.
But she is powerful. In 2014, Grace brought down Joice Mujuru, ex-deputy president and a liberation war veteran long seen as Mugabe’s likely successor, accusing her of plotting to kill the president. She is now seen by some as the candidate of Zanu-PF’s G40 faction, which claims to represent a younger generation of leaders.
Her chief rival and the front runner to replace Mugabe is Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, 74, a hardline veteran of the war against white rule known as “the Crocodile”, who leads the “Lacoste” faction.
Mnangagwa is believed to have the backing of both the army and the powerful war veterans organisation. But Grace’s closeness to Mugabe means she remains a dangerous opponent.
Mnangagwa was rushed to hospital in South Africa in early August with severe vomiting and diarrhoea. Mugabe laughed off rumours that his deputy was poisoned with the first family’s ice cream served at a political rally.
Mnangagwa later released a statement calling talk that he had eaten the ice cream “false and mischievous” and aimed at creating a rift between him and Mugabe’s family.
Nonetheless, one of Mnangagwa’s allies, Energy Mutodi, was arrested after insinuating on Facebook that two cabinet ministers were behind the alleged poisoning of Mugabe’s deputy.
As the jostling for position goes on, the economy of what was once the prosperous breadbasket of southern Africa is reeling.
Zimbabwe prospered after independence as Mugabe pursued moderate policies and reconciliation. But all that changed from 2000 when, under pressure from the war veterans, Mugabe caused chaos by allowing white farmers to be violently pushed off the land and replaced by cronies or allies with no farming ability.
The economy halved in size and Zimbabwe suffered the second worst case of hyper-inflation in history, reaching a rate of 500 billion percent before it abandoned its own currency in 2009 and allowed the use of U.S. dollars and the South African rand.
The opposition MDC party, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, won the first round of the 2008 election but with an insufficient majority to rule. Zanu-PF intimidated opposition voters with widespread violence before a run-off, and Tsvangirai withdrew.
Mugabe then lured the opposition leader into a power-sharing government that discredited Tsvangirai, although the economy began to recover.
The president won his seventh term in the 2013 election amid allegations of fraud. Since then the economy has again declined, and the introduction of a surrogate currency of bond notes last year to combat a chronic shortage of cash has again raised the spectre of runaway inflation. Employment in the formal economy is more than 90 percent.
The last thing this beautiful country needs when Mugabe goes is an extended succession struggle instead of peace and the lifting of Western sanctions that would enable the rebuilding of the economy after so many years as an international pariah.
* Barry Moody is a correspondent with ANA partner News-Decoder. He was Africa Editor for Reuters for 10 years and Middle East editor for seven, during which time he led coverage of the 2003 Iraq war. He worked on every continent as one of the agency’s most experienced foreign correspondents and editors. His postings included Italy, Asia, Australasia and the United States. He ran editorial operations in Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal at the height of the EU debt crisis.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.