By Andrew Harding
It’s been an appropriately fractured, uneasy week in Zimbabwe.
As the country has tried to deal with the long-anticipated death of its loved and loathed founding father, Robert Mugabe, the nation has experienced an unsettling and contradictory jumble of deep reverence, nostalgia, indifference, hypocrisy and anger, combined with an almost soap-opera quantity of plot twists.
At the heart of those contradictions and twists, sits the enigmatic and widely reviled Grace Mugabe – the grieving widow, her face now hidden beneath a dark veil, a woman whose fortunes, over the decades, have revealed so much about how power really works in Zimbabwe.
She was the secretary who married the president, who then became infamous for her lavish shopping sprees and fiery temper. Grace earned a dubious doctorate and swept into politics, to head Zanu PF’s Women’s League.
It was Grace’s increasingly vitriolic interventions and obvious ambition that – it’s widely believed – provoked the military to stage the 2017 coup in order to thwart her faction in the governing party and with it her apparent dynastic plans.
Was there misogyny wrapped up in the public’s attitude towards her? No doubt. But the practical result of her politicking was that she fled the country and was ruthlessly purged from the party.
But now she’s back. And not, perhaps, just to bury her husband.
“She’s tough. She’ll stay in Zimbabwe. She’ll be persecuted, but she’ll stay,” said Patrick Zhuwao, Mugabe’s nephew and one of Grace’s political allies who has chosen to remain abroad for his own safety.
This past week, Grace has been silent but centre-stage in Harare, as a furious tug-of-war has raged, sometimes in public, over the logistics and politics of where to bury her husband’s 95-year-old body.
There she was, sobbing, as the plane carrying his coffin from Singapore touched down in Harare. She declined the state’s hearse. She tore up its funeral plans. The family complained of state coercion.
The dispute could be dismissed as a sideshow – the sort of fractious haggling that might accompany the funeral of anyone who lived a long and complicated life.
But here in Zimbabwe – an opaque, corrupt, centralised and turbulent would-be-democracy – every twist has been closely analysed for what it might reveal about an all-powerful elite that operates behind closed doors but sometimes erupts in spectacular public feuds, complete with allegations of poisonings and assassinations.
Hence the endless questions. Is Grace planning a political comeback? Who is winning the grave war? Has President Emmerson Mnangagwa backed down or is he being magnanimous in victory? Was the low turnout at Saturday’s state funeral arranged to spite the Mugabes?
Why did no-one applaud Mr Mnangagwa’s florid speech? Who now wields power within the Mugabe family – Grace or the clan elders? Why did Grace demand a special mausoleum for her husband? Will she be safe here? Can she make peace with Mr Mnangagwa?
You can see why they call it a soap opera.
The truth is that Grace Mugabe will have to cut some sort of deal with the government if she is to remain in Zimbabwe with her wealth and security and family intact. Perhaps she already has.
She and her husband overestimated their political power and their popular support two years ago with spectacular and disastrous results for them both.
“[It was] a hard and excruciating journey. He was a sad, sad, sad man,” said another Mugabe nephew, Walter Chidkhakwa, on Saturday, describing his uncle’s last months.
But who knows how long any truce might hold. Zimbabwe’s political future looks messy. The new government is trying to implement tough economic reforms but it lacks both public trust and the competence, unity and integrity to push through the necessary measures.
The result is deepening economic hardship for the majority. Perhaps more fundamentally, Zimbabwean democracy is still broken. The opposition believes last year’s elections were rigged, and it may choose to take to the streets, like its counterpart in Kenya, to provoke a security clampdown and a crisis and perhaps to secure a power-sharing deal.
In the midst of all this, Grace Mugabe will presumably remain at the Blue Roof – her grand mansion in Harare’s northern suburbs – waiting for a hilltop mausoleum worthy of her husband to be completed, and preparing for a private burial and, perhaps, one more chance to spite the men who betrayed her husband and won this round in Zimbabwe’s game of thrones.