Harare — FIRST Lady Grace Mugabe's entrance into Zanu PF politics as the party's Women's League boss has shaken Vice-President Joice Mujuru's camp, which seemed to have taken a lead in the race to succeed President Robert Mugabe.
Mujuru seemed to have outmanoeuvred her arch-rival, Justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa at district and provincial levels across the country ahead of the party's youth and women's leagues congresses this month, to be followed by an elective congress in December.
Mujuru and her allies must have been shocked by sensational political developments last weekend when the Women's League proposed Mugabe appoints her into the politburo as secretary for women's affairs in December.
The vice-president probably never saw it coming - especially at a time when it appeared that all her ducks were in a row to ensure she succeeds Mugabe at the helm of the party and government.
Grace's unexpected entrance into Zanu PF politics changes the succession matrix in the party, which had up to now mostly pitted Mujuru against Mnangagwa as the two leading contenders for the presidency.
Mujuru's strategic position in the party appeared to favour her ascension to the leadership of the party.
Zanu PF recently announced rules and regulations for election, requiring a minimum of 15 years uninterrupted service to the party as prerequisites for candidates vying for the central committee and Women's League, which disqualified many in Mnangagwa's camp but fortified Mujuru's hold on critical party structures.
Those in Mnangagwa's camp who stand disqualified include chairpersons who were suspended from the party in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsholotsho declaration which sought to elevate Mnangagwa to the vice-presidency.
However, the advent of Grace, who celebrated her 49th birthday last week, changes the dynamics of the succession matrix in Zanu PF, considering that the Women's League has been powerful in influencing critical decisions in the party including elevating Mujuru to the vice presidency ahead of Mnangagwa who was a shoe-in after securing the support of six out of 10 provinces in 2004.
Mujuru was absent when the party's Women's League from all provinces converged at Grace's farm in Mazowe on Friday and unanimously resolved to endorse her to take over from Oppah Muchinguri as leader of the organ - a development which will also secure her ticket to the politburo if adopted by Mugabe. The official explanation was that Mujuru does not have to attend meetings of a party organ.
Since the meeting in Mazowe was attended by women from both factions, could this mean that the so-called Mugabe faction was now coming out of its shell?
What implications does this have on Mugabe's successor considering what the president said in April when he revealed that the race was not just between Mujuru and Mnangagwa.
Mugabe told a gathering of his Gushungo kinsmen in his rural Zvimba district on April 4: "In many provinces we hear of divisions along factional lines. It is said Mai Mujuru and Minister Mnangagwa are aspiring for the presidency. People will choose who they want. It is not just these two."
He repeated this later that month telling Ghanaian-born British film-maker Roy Agyemang, "I have people in mind who would want to be. But I have looked at them. I have not come to any conclusion as to which one, really, should be. I leave it to the choice of people. Perhaps when we get close to the election I will have some in mind."
At 49, Grace has age on her side and could well be preparing to succeed her husband who is 90 years and cannot go beyond 2023 because of a two-term limit imposed by the new constitution.
But it remains to be seen how she could possibly achieve this given her relative lack of political experience.
However, even if she may not be aspiring for the highest office, Grace will certainly become an important power broker who has to be courted by whoever wants to succeed Mugabe.
Political analyst Godwin Phiri said: "It is unlikely that she (Grace) will succeed her husband but given her marital status and the fact of leading the women's league she immediately becomes a key power broker."
"While others need meetings to influence the president she has uninterrupted access. The factions will have to engage her to improve their chances of succeeding the president."
Viewed from that perspective, it may be that the Mnangagwa faction has stolen a march on rivals given Muchinguri's key role in Grace's endorsement last week.
Not only was Muchinguri present at the event, the nation was informed that she voluntarily gave up her position to accommodate Grace before proceeding to milk the event to the fullest to denigrate her faction's rivals.
"Vamwe vaivhoterwa mumabhawa vachitenga vanhu Mhai (Some were buying votes in bars, they looked for hecklers to denigrate genuine cadres)," Muchinguri said of the provincial elections that catapulted seven Mujuru loyalists to power.
While it is tempting to think that because Muchinguri is a Mnangagwa loyalist therefore her actions are all premised on ensuring he sneaks in ahead of Mujuru, the Zanu PF internal politics is more complex than that and as suggested by another analyst Dumisani Nkomo, Muchinguri may well be nursing ambitions of her own.
"The question to ask is whether Oppah is doing this not as a Mnangagwa but a Mugabe loyalist doing the president's bidding, helping place the president's wife in a strategic position in order to secure family interests after his departure," said Nkomo.
"Could it be that she is doing this with the understanding of the Mugabes that she and her co-workers will get their rewards from the old man if they deliver for his family? If so, this would seem a faster way for Oppah of accessing her desired political objective than working through Mnangagwa since in this instance she is dealing directly with the power broker in Zanu PF, Mugabe himself."
Nkomo may well be right given that allegiances have been shifting within Zanu PF on the basis of whom between Mujuru and Mnangagwa appears to have the upper hand at any particular time.
Beyond the higher aspirations of succeeding to the national leadership, it may be that Grace's entry into politics may have been motivated by the more mundane need for self-preservation.
The First Family has extensive business interests in farming, dairy and possibly in the mining sector too -- all of which may need to be protected from retribution which has been known to occur whenever there is a new political dispensation.
In Zambia, former President Frederick Chiluba suffered the indignity of having his wealth investigated and appearing in court after Levy Mwanawasa took over as president. This may be something that Grace wants to prevent from happening to her and her family after Mugabe's departure.
"It is clear that Mugabe is looking to put in place structures and people that will protect his legacy and these are people he can trust -- especially his wife," said Brian Raftopolous, a political analyst.
While Grace's real motives are still under scrutiny, the reality is that her entry into the political arena will only serve up more twists and turns to the high drama of the Zanu PF succession.