Foreign leaders, supporters and ordinary citizens yesterday gathered at a national stadium to bid farewell to Zimbabwe’s founding leader Robert Mugabe, after a week of disputes over his burial.
The controversy centers on his widow, Grace Mugabe, who remained dramatically cloaked behind a heavy black veil as she succeeded in making the country’s president scrap his plans for the ex-leader to be buried in a simple plot alongside other national heroes and instead build a grand new mausoleum for her husband.
Known as a strong-willed woman with political ambitions, Grace Mugabe has made the most of her role as the grieving widow — and some in Zimbabwe think she is using the issue to reassert herself as a force to be reckoned with in the country.
When Grace Mugabe, 54, objected to the funeral plans for Robert Mugabe, who died last week at 95, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa came to her palatial 25-bedroom residence in Harare’s posh Borrowdale suburb to consult her about how the interment should proceed.
He departed saying he would respect her wishes and scrapped his funeral plans.
She and other family members said they had enlisted the support of Zimbabwe’s traditional chiefs to determine how Mugabe would be buried.
In a series of announcements throughout the week they divulged details of where, when and how Mugabe would be buried.
The saga culminated on Friday with the announcement that the funeral had been postponed for 30 days, until the elaborate new edifice could be built at the Heroes’ Acre national monument.
“We are building a mausoleum for our founding father at the top of the hill at Heroes Acre,” Mnangagwa said on state television of the plan to construct the imposing monument to Robert Mugabe, a guerrilla leader who fought to end white-minority rule when the country was known as Rhodesia.
The wrangle over the burial highlighted the lasting acrimony between Grace Mugabe and Mnangagwa.
In 2014, then-Zimbabwean vice president Joice Mujuru was sacked, after Grace Mugabe launched a series of public attacks against her.
The first lady then turned her sights on Mnangagwa, who was fired from the vice presidency in 2017.
Mnangagwa fled the country, saying he feared for his life.
The prospect of Grace Mugabe gaining so much power, especially as her husband was becoming visibly feeble, prompted the military to put the couple under house arrest. Robert Mugabe was forced to resign in November 2017, and his wife was expelled from the ruling party.
With Mugabe’s death and the protracted drama surrounding his burial, Grace has reasserted her national prominence — and her ascendency over Mnangagwa.
“That stuff about traditional leaders making the decision is rubbish. Grace was determined to decide how Mugabe should be buried,” said Zimbabwean analyst Ibbo Mandaza.
Since Robert Mugabe’s ouster “Mnangagwa has not taken any action against her. Nothing has happened to the mansions, the properties, the state allowances,” Mandaza said.
Grace might just make a political comeback, he added.
“Maybe in a year we will see Grace in bed with Mnangagwa, politically, if not literally,” he said.
Additional reporting by staff writer
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