First Lady Grace Mugabe should not be underrated because she wields so much power and influence over President Robert Mugabe.
The First Lady acts as President Mugabe’s gatekeeper and often controls people that see him and what information gets to him. The First Lady also played a crucial behind the scene role during the power-sharing negotiations after the disputed presidential run-off poll in June 2008.
This information is contained in United States diplomatic cables intercepted and leaked by whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.
One cable quotes then US ambassador to Zimbabwe Charles Ray saying the First Lady wielded immense influence over the former guerilla leader, who has ruled Zimbabwe for nearly 32 years.
Ray made the assessment after a meeting with Norwegian ambassador to Zimbabwe Gunnar Foreland, an experienced Africa hand, who provided his insights on Zimbabwe.
The Norwegian ambassador told Ray on November 25, 2009 that many people did not appreciate the role the First Lady played in terms of having the President’s ear.
“She acts as a kind of gatekeeper, often controlling who sees him, and what information gets to him,” Foreland reportedly told the US top envoy in Harare.
“In this, she is assisted by (Reserve Bank governor Gideon) Gono who acts as (President) Mugabe’s bag man and who has played a critical role in most of Grace’s ‘businesses’.”
The cable said the First Lady had made more headlines for her “shopping” than for her political role, but she started coming into the political limelight after the March 2008 elections which her husband lost to MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
In another cable dispatched on July 25 2008, Gono reportedly said he had discussed amendments to the power-sharing deal with the President and the First Lady and that the couple was agreeable to an accord with several amendments, including that President Mugabe should be allowed to serve as President indefinitely and should not have to retire at a certain time.
The cable said the power sharing agreement was drafted by Econet boss Strive Masiyiwa.
Another cable said Tsvangirai told former US ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGee the powerful Joint Operations Command (JOC), allegedly supported by Gono and the First Lady, discussed delaying the inauguration of the new government and marginalising him.
The cable was dispatched on October 10, 2008 before the coalition government came into effect.
During the meeting between Foreland and Ray, the diplomats discussed a wide range of issues on Zimbabwe.
Foreland reportedly told Ray the interplay of Shona and Western culture and the role ethnicity plays in the relationship between President Mugabe and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, the relationship of Gono and the First Lady to President Robert Mugabe, and the importance of security sector reform.
“A long-time observer of the Africa scene with vast experience on the continent, Foreland said we in the West often fail to appreciate the way the indigenous culture merges with Western culture to shape the behaviour of people here,” Ray said in the cable
“He said, for instance, in Zimbabwe, the dominant Shona culture often exists side by side with Western culture and locals see no conflict. Many Government of Zimbabwe agencies and officials switch between the two whenever it is to their advantage.”
Added the US envoy: “He thinks that Tsvangirai’s deference to (President) Mugabe, for instance, is rooted in Shona culture: respect for elders and respect for a fellow Shona.
“The ethnic factor also plays a role in the attitude of South African President Zuma toward (President) Mugabe. In addition to not being a ‘revolutionary comrade’ as Thabo Mbeki was, Zuma, being Zulu,does not have the same sense of kinship with (President) Mugabe, a Shona.”