FIRST lady, Grace Mugabe's unexpected headlong plunge into full-time active politics, though it is still early days, has so far been a baptism of fire as she begins to realise that in the treacherous Zanu PF politics -- full of complex plots and subplots -- what you see may not necessarily be what you get.
While youths from the country's 10 provinces thronged her Mazowe farm on Thursday last week to show solidarity with her over her nomination to head the Zanu PF Women's League and chanted slogans in her honour, declaring their unwavering support and loyalty, the same youths went on to vote for candidates from Vice-President Joice Mujuru's faction that is she is fighting.
Grace -- who received a cool reception at the women's conference in Harare yesterday -- is being sponsored by outgoing Women's League boss Oppah Muchinguri and some senior officials linked to the faction led by Justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.
However, the Mujuru faction last weekend seized key positions in the Youth League to consolidate its grip on the party after its sweeping victory in provincial elections last November. Although President Robert Mugabe yesterday further lambasted senior party officials for influencing the youth conference outcome, describing their interference as having created a "mess", the results stand.
Since her coming into mainstream politics a few weeks ago, Grace has been on a warpath, attacking the Mujuru faction with the help of mainly Muchinguri and Mugabe indirectly, she would have by now realised that she has a mountain to climb to get to the summit of Zimbabwean politics.
While Grace and those behind her appeared to have thrown a wild card and seized the momentum, the Mujuru faction rolled out party bigwigs to camp at the youth conference venue at Rainbow Towers hotel in Harare - in brazen defiance of Mugabe who had urged senior officials to stay away - to directly influence the outcome.
Unless Grace and her allies manage to pull the rug from underneath Mujuru's feet at the Women's League conference which ends today, she is likely to be surrounded by Mujuru loyalists in the new hierarchy, something which may make her leadership of the influential wing difficult.
Senior Zanu PF officials linked to the Mujuru faction have been telling Zimbabwe Independent that although they were initially rattled by Grace's unexpected entry into politics, they would not allow her to ride roughshod over them and would plow on.
"Nothing changes as far as we are concerned. Our eye remains on the ball," one senior official linked to the Mujuru faction said. "Whether Grace eventually becomes leader of the Women's League or not, we forge ahead with our plans."
Eldred Masunungure, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, said the victory by Zanu PF youths aligned to Mujuru, even though marred by vote-buying and manipulation, was an indication that Grace would not have it easy, despite having the advantage of being Mugabe's wife and enjoying the advantages associated with it.
"My view is that the lady (Grace) is too much of a novice in a party that is extremely treacherous. I doubt that she will be able to successfully swim in Zanu PF's treacherous political waters and survive in the end," said Masunungure.
"Despite the fact that the youths were pampered at her farm, they still rallied quite strongly around Mujuru, never mind the alleged chicanery. The alleged chicanery is not new in Zanu PF; it is institutionalised in the party. If there was rigging, then it means the Mnangagwa faction, supported by Mugabe, was out-rigged and it is nothing out of the ordinary in Zanu PF."
Masunungure said as things stood Mujuru's determined ascendancy was still undeterred although he warned things could change given that Zanu PF politics is fluid and thus unpredictable.
He said the Mujuru faction appears to have so far done its homework and Grace and her allies need to pull out all the stops to block the Mujuru faction's rise at the main congress in December.
"She (Grace) has to understand how the party works very quickly because it's one thing to be parachuted in from nowhere to head the Women's League, and by extension to be appointed to the politburo, and quite another to be to understand how it works and be influential. She needs experience to navigate turbulent Zanu PF politics but at the moment that experience is still lacking," he said.
Even though Mugabe is Grace's trump card, indications are that he is now fast losing control of the party as senior officials are no longer willing to listen to him or are not scared of his threats as shown by the youth and women conferences.
Mugabe was defied by senior party officials at the 2006 Goromonzi annual conference when they blocked him from extending his tenure from 2008 to 2010 outside an election.
The following year, at the December 2007 extraordinary Zanu PF congress, which was imposed on him by the Mujuru faction, late vice-president Joseph Msika threatened to walk out with John Nkomo in furious protest over war veterans' leader Jabulani Sibanda's presence at the gathering when he was supposed to be suspended, forcing Mugabe to spring into action to stop the imminent revolt.
Events at the youth and women conferences indicate Mugabe has now practically lost control of the party whose polls are increasingly decided through intimidation, brazen vote-buying and manipulation of the entire process, just like nation elections.