Vice President Joice Mujuru touched off a storm on Sunday after appearing to suggest President Robert Mugabe’s natural life was drawing to a close, and declaring herself his replacement.
Mujuru addressed a gathering at her farm in Beatrice to mark the first anniversary of her husband’s death – and then surprised the press pack by seeking out a reporter from the privately-owned Daily News for an exclusive interview.
She told the newspaper that the 89-year-old Mugabe, who just won a sixth term in office and is due to be inaugurated this week, had moulded her into the “best leader”.
Mujuru told the Daily News that a new constitution signed into law in May allows Zanu PF to appoint Mugabe’s successor to finish his term as President in the event that he dies – and by virtue of being Vice President, she is that successor.
She went on: “We know that the president will soon be 90, and God might decide to call him. He has taught us a lot on how to lead the party.
“Zanu PF will never die because President Mugabe is no longer there; there are people who now can lead the party.”
Hours after the publication of the story, her aides, led by Sylvester Nguni, a minister of state in her office, made feverish calls to journalists claiming the newspaper had overplayed her comments.
Elsewhere, senior Zanu PF officials were privately briefing against her for what they saw as her failure to curb her ambitions.
“There is anger in the party,” said one senior official. “People are already calling it the ‘Beatrice Betrayal’. You don’t talk about your leader like that, especially when he has just comprehensively won a fresh mandate from the people and has yet to even be inaugurated.
“She is trying to play God, being 89 does not mean you’re about to die. For all we know, she might die first.”
In his 33 years in power, Mugabe has ruthlessly stifled the succession debate in his party, demoting over-ambitious leaders and isolating their supporters.
The Zanu PF leader was due to return from a SADC summit in Malawi on Sunday night, and it is customary for Mujuru to welcome him at the airport – making for an awkward moment for Mujuru as Mugabe would no doubt have been briefed about her comments before getting off the plane.
Said another Zanu PF official: “It’s unlikely the President will even mention it to her – and that’s where her punishment is, now knowing what Mugabe makes of it all. Over time, she will feel increasingly isolated, that’s how Mugabe operates.
“She may very well have blown her chances of getting the President’s endorsement to be the next leader of Zanu PF.”
Analysts say Zanu PF is divided into two main factions – one led by Mujuru and another led by Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.
“Mugabe holds the two factions like glue, he commands their respect, but once he is out of the way, there will be nothing stopping them from taking a mutually destructing course,” according to academic, Brilliant Mhlanga.