The Mugabe dynasty falters

Jan Raath says Grace has been struck down, and so the old tyrant appears to be looking to his daughter Bona to succeed him

The script could have been written by Sophocles.

The ancient, ailing king wants to relinquish his rule, but doesn't trust his fawning courtiers. So he appoints his ambitious, avaricious wife as his successor. Then just as she is about to ascend the throne, the gods intervene, and she is struck down. He has no-one else he can turn to, except his beloved young daughter...

President Robert Mugabe turned 91 last month and the signs of senility have become alarmingly apparent. His utterances are rambling and dislocated, and he admitted this week the job was wearing him down. Of more concern is the constant need for expert medical attention - since January he has flown at least four times to Singapore where he is a regular patient at the exclusive Gleneagles Hospital (top daily rate for a room - US$5,084).

His officials have long since given up the farce that he has been undergoing treatment for cataract replacement, a procedure that allows the patient to go home after a couple of hours. They just don't answer their phones.

The issue of his successor began to emerge in his ZANU(PF) party about 20 years ago, but he promptly crushed the debate before it could begin. Instead, his toadies act publicly as if he is eternal, so the debate doesn't arise. The party's youth league has already signalled its endorsement of him as its candidate for elections in 2018 when he will be 94. Vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa went on his knees and thanked the president when he was sworn in. Party political commissar Saviour Kasukuwere refers to him as "our god."

Mugabe evidently sees these averments as competition among his courtiers to try to outdo each other in prostrating themselves before him to win his favour, ultimately jockeying to take over. Such displays of ambition only confirm his suspicions of intent to overthrow him.

So he startled the political establishment late last year by allowing his wife, Grace (49), to run a campaign to wreck the political career of Joice Mujuru, his then vice-president and next-in-line to succeed him and who was beginning to appear impatient. He unilaterally appointed Grace head of the ruling party's women's league.

 In mid-February she attended her first meeting of the party's "politburo," its executive committee. She was pictured sitting next to him, with one of the vice-presidents on her left.

The symbolism of the seating arrangements was clear, with her, as it were, "at the right hand of the father." Mugabe's spokesman insisted she was next to him only as his spouse, but in organisations as strictly hierarchical as  ZANU(PF), appearance and precedence are all.

But by this time it was clear that Grace was unwell. She had returned from Singapore at the end of January after spending two months in hospital, looking haggard. Medical specialists examining the pictures of her on her return suggested the cause of her appearance was chemotherapy for treatment of a cancer. She made the unlikely claim she had undergone an appendicectomy, and said she was recovering. Three weeks later, after the politburo meeting, Mugabe admitted she had left the gathering early because "she is not yet strong."

Staff on The Herald, ZANU(PF)'s main daily state propaganda organ, need a good excuse if a picture of the president does not appear on its front page each day. Usually Grace is pictured by his side, and more frequently in her own right since her elevation last year. But she has not been seen in public for the last month.

She rarely misses accompanying him on his jaunts abroad, using the occasions to fill the Air Zimbabwe aircraft's hold with shopping booty. Her absence from his trips in the last couple of weeks to Japan, Namibia and Algeria has been conspicuous. On Wednesday a donation from South Africa's Gift of The Givers for Zimbabwean flood victims, one of her causes, was received on her behalf by one of Zimbabwe's two vice-presidents (which in itself is revealing) . "Where's Grace?" the front page of Harare's independent Daily News asked this week.

No-one was prepared for the next denouement. The Herald carried pictures of Mugabe and his ministerial delegation in Japan, in at least two official meetings with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. By his side, was his 24-year-old daughter, Bona Mugabe-Chikore.

Again, Mugabe's officials averred that she was at his side as a companion. But she was not politely asked to wait outside while her father conducted serious head-of-government business; she appeared as a member of the delegation, sitting next to the president and clearly signifying her seniority in the Zimbabwe government delegation.

The protocol officials who make these arrangements - under instructions - are fully aware how they will be perceived. Zimbabweans reacted with shock and outrage in personal encounters and on electronic media.

The Mugabes' youngest child, the rebellious Chatunga (18), was expelled two years ago from St George's College, Harare's top Catholic school, for "gross insubordination" and is now at the Anglican private school in the capital, St John's College . Described by his father as "a party animal," he appears in an online picture in a tangle with a bevy of girls and another has him exhaling dense smoke of what may not be tobacco.

The next, 21-year-old Robert Jnr, appears unconcerned about his father's disappointment at his achievement of "U's" (ungraded) in all his school-leaving exams at St John's. He has made basketball the love of his life, and has captained the Zimbabwe junior team. Banned from furthering his prowess in the United States because of sanctions against his parents, he has made do with playing at the American University in Dubai where he is a student, and looks forward to playing for the national senior team.

Bona, however, is the president's favourite, a serious-minded, bright young woman, intent on doing well, and looks more like presidential material than her siblings. "I never had a moment's trouble with that girl," said an Irish nun who taught her at the Harare Dominican Convent School. She graduated in 2011 at the Hong Kong City University - after enrolling under an alias to avoid unwelcome attention because of her father's history - with an honours degree in accountancy and administration. Two years later she was capped with a Masters degree in banking and finance at the Management and Development Institute of Singapore.

(Grace, by contrast, was personally capped by her husband at the University of Zimbabwe - chancellor, R. Mugabe - in September last year with a PhD on the sociology of children's homes, in a thesis that was never registered or supervised and has yet to made available by university authorities.)

Bona keeps a low public profile, but was spotted two years ago in an big SUV with registration plates that read "HRH1."

She was married last year in a sumptuous affair arranged by her mother for 5,000 guests and 10 African presidents. Her husband is Simbarashe Chikore, a pilot for Emirates Airlines. One can only guess at his feelings for his mother-in-law after she publicly announced in 2013 that she had warned the girl, "do not ever let that boy touch your breast or your body, you must have the honour to get married when you are still a virgin."

It is not clear how the Sophoclean narrative will proceed from here. She should know that her mother derives all her influence and fealty from the presence of her father, and the same will obtain if she is put on the throne. The instant he goes, they will find themselves naked and at the mercy of the swarms of hungry crocodiles in ZANU(PF). Basketball would be a wiser choice.

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