Kleptocracies come apart for all sorts of reasons, but it’s a rare delight that the Zimbabwean military’s to-date rather slick putsch was triggered, in part, by Grace Mugabe’s freely decadent history of luxury shopping.
Ever the snappy dresser, the now-embattled first lady, 52 – at this writing under house arrest with her husband, Robert, in the couple’s $10-million, 25-bedroom Blue Roof mansion in Harare – was until a few weeks ago a regular in the world’s fashion capitals and well-known in Harare and beyond for her jewelry, her collection of designer shoes, and not least, for her habit of dropping rock-star levels of cash in the best shops of Paris, Rome, and London.
She famously hit one Paris shop for a whopping $75 000, a spree that she denies but that nevertheless has stuck in the popular imagination.
At home, the 2014 wedding of the Mugabes’ daughter, Bona, staged by her mother for a 4000-strong guest list in the 60-acre gardens of the Mugabes’ Borrowdale estate, cost a reported $5 million.
The caterers were flown in from Singapore.
European Union sanctions against the Mugabes restricted their Continental shopping only somewhat since the early Aughts.
As they held office, she and her husband were welcome in the Vatican, and could traverse Italy to get to this or that celebration at the Holy See, which provided Mrs. Mugabe with opportunity to visit some of Rome’s better merchants. For the moment, she remains welcome in the United States.
Derisively known in Harare as “The First Shopper,” “Gucci Grace,” and perhaps more poetically as “DisGrace,” Mrs. Mugabe has put together an extensive wardrobe featuring, among other baubles, a reported mountain of Salvatore Ferragamo shoes.
Quizzed by a reporter about the footwear, she blithely replied: “I have very narrow feet, so I can only wear Ferragamos.”
That celebrity endorsement will come as a surprise and now arguably as a great relief to the marketers of Jimmy Choo, Louboutin, Prada, Proenza Schouler, Bally and Tod footwear, whose exquisite work does, also, run in small sizes.
Shoe brands aside, the fact is that Grace Mugabe has cut a radical – if also wholly ridiculous – Cruella De Vil figure on the international fashion circuit. Her most recent appearance at an international fashion event occurred in New York just this past September 19th, a scant six weeks before the army decided to call an end to her spree, at the Fashion4Development’s First Ladies luncheon, pictured above.
The Fashion4Development luncheon is an annual fixture honoring philanthropic efforts among fashion-industry leaders during the United Nations’ annual General Assembly session. That the lunch is also attended by failed-state kleptocrats is not, necessarily, the fashion organization’s fault, but this year’s lunch at the Pierre Hotel honored, among others, former model and new British Vogue contributing editor Naomi Campbell, who once infamously accepted a sachet of blood diamonds after a dinner in Johannesburg from former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor, then reportedly on an arms-buying excursion in the South African capital.
It’s axiomatic that the leaders of kleptocracies routinely excuse themselves from the practice of altruism – rather, the idea is to keep raking in the loot, even if, as in the case of Zimbabwe, seven out of ten citizens are living in poverty.
In other words, Mrs. Mugabe’s appearance at a Rome or Paris boutique with fistfuls cash would be the norm. Whether anybody at or attached to the Fashion4Development awards function registered the contradiction, if not the staggering hypocrisy, inherent in Mrs. Mugabe’s attendance at a philanthropic awards lunch has gone unreported.
There are much bigger discussions under way in Harare right now than Mrs. Mugabe’s forays in fashion, namely, the negotiations, mediated by the South Africans, on the Mugabes’ exit.
While it is estimated that the Mugabe family fortunes exceed $1 billion, a sizable portion of which is outside the country and thus tough to track, it’s well known that their property portfolio has increased dramatically over the years, with homes in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and a daisy chain of farms confiscated, or otherwise obtained, from previous owners in Zimbabwe.
The centerpiece of the farms is Mrs. Mugabe’s renowned Omega Dairy operation, held to be one of the largest in southern Africa.
Forming the cherries atop this ill-gotten confection of luxuries are the Mugabe children’s own shopping hijinks in the high life. Following in his mother’s footsteps, Robert Mugabe, Jr., seems inordinately proud of his black alligator-leather gold-plate-trimmed Giuseppe Zanotti high-top sneakers, which are not ordinarily available, with a reported cost of some $14 000.
Mrs. Mugabe’s son by her previous marriage was recently seen offloading two Rolls Royces that he had air-freighted into the country. Proving that the apple does not fall far from the tree, the youngest of Grace and Robert Mugabe’s three children, Berlamine Chatunga, earlier this year posted an Instagram video of himself enjoying his own luxury shopping by inexplicably pouring a $500 bottle of Armand de Brignac Champagne over his diamond-encrusted watch, accompanied by the free-living caption: “$60,000 on the wrist when your daddy run the country ya know!!!” Grammar and punctuation his.
While it’s not known whether the generals who orchestrated the takeover, with Chinese and South African approval, were aware of Belarmine Chatunga’s jewelry shopping or his errant disco-boy habits with bottles of fine wines, diamonds, in the form of eastern Zimbabwe’s huge Marange diamond fields, will definitely be on the generals’ minds in the current discussions with the arrested couple.
The Marange diamond fields are large, skimming by the powers that control them is rife, and the abuses of the miners have been many. The mines have taken a curious path toward legitimization as non-blood mines on the world market, but, after intense lobbying, they have been approved by the Kimberley Process.
Just “nationalized” by Robert Mugabe in 2016, the process by which the Mugabes have historically arranged larger cuts for themselves, Marange last released 300 000 carats for sale in 2014. Like all else the Mugabes have touched in their long and ugly run, including the mansion in which they are now being slow-roasted, the Marange fields, touted as one of the richest African diamond finds of the last century, will remain a coveted piece on Zimbabwe’s new political chessboard.
Around the officially-sanctioned protests against Mugabe in central Harare – unthinkable a month ago – rumors are rife that Mrs. Mugabe’s in-country shopping days are numbered, whether for farms, houses, or, in fact, for fashion.
Her political associates, mostly younger cabinet ministers of her faction within the ruling party, remain at this writing under arrest.
Mugabe’s sacking by his own party and his flailing valedictory speech on November 19th, before, facing certain impeachment, he officially resigned via letter forty-eight hours later, were simply the denouement of a dictatorship blowing apart at the seams.
It was symbiotic self-destruction on a Shakespearean level: Grace Mugabe was an extreme political liability that Robert Mugabe, in his dotage, did not realize that he could not carry. Her fiery political ambition to succeed him, the ultimate luxury she could not attain, did them both in.
Now, the best that the Mugabes can hope for in the coming days is a cobbled-together form of immunity. In any case, as Mrs. Mugabe stews on her well-earned fate in the Blue Roof, she will do well to pack a few of her treasured Ferragamos and her jewelry cases for the long haul. If she’s allowed that.
It’s thought that the generals and/or their proxies will shortly invite her out of the country, perhaps to her own homes in Malaysia, Hong Kong, or Singapore. Where, if all goes well for her in the next weeks and she’s allowed to retain access to the money that the couple has reportedly secreted in Switzerland and elsewhere, she’ll still just be able to feather her nest with plenty of luxury shopping.
Amid Harare’s semi-controlled political chaos, one fact seems increasingly clear: the architects of the changes, and the people of Zimbabwe, are thinking that Grace Mugabe is a luxury that they can no longer afford.- Forbes Magazine