The year was 1997 and the setting was the foyer of the world famous Ritz Hotel in Paris, France. Zimbabwean government officials, diplomats and the media were lounging in the vast and opulent lobby of the hotel. It is a very classy hotel for the well-heeled.
My reason for being in the world capital of fashion and cuisine was an assignment, which had nothing to do with good food or understanding fashion. I had accompanied President Robert Gabriel Mugabe as part of the Zimbabwean press corps.
The world was still mourning Princess Diana who had died in a horrific accident while fleeing from the Paparazzi to the Ritz Hotel with her lover, Dodi Al Fayed.
Mugabe and his wife, Grace had gone somewhere and we waited for them to return. They were whispers that they had gone to eat Zimbabwean food, which had been prepared at our embassy in Paris with others adding that they could have passed through some upmarket places for a spot of shopping.
Prior to this trip, I had never seen Grace from close range nor had I heard her speak.
It was on the flight to France from Harare that I had seen the country’s new first lady from very close range and heard her speak. All along, since her marriage to Mugabe, she had always remained in his shadows and portrayed as a withdrawn person.
She barely spoke to the press, if at all, the perception among some was that she was a trophy wife. The only time she came out of her shell was along with other prominent people and reportedly looted funds for a civil servants housing scheme.
With the proceeds, she was said to have built a monstrous edifice in Borrowdale. So it was with a bit of surprise, thousands of kilometers away from home that I learnt from the hushed conversations that some in the delegation were actually terrified of her.
Before she officially wedded Mugabe, legendary stories were told among veteran journalists about how a certain young lady always found herself on the presidential entourage together with one or two kids who would cause absolute racket on the plane.
According to the legend, several high ranking officials on the plane would receive generous amounts of slaps to their faces and thank the kids or apologise to them. Nobody has come forward to confirm or deny the legend.
Anyway, as a way of whiling up time as we waited for the Mugabes and their delegation to come, I had struck a conversation with the late Foreign Affairs minister, Stanislaus Mudenge, known by some as Cde Stan.
Mudenge was a giant of a man and had a booming voice and was well-schooled in history and literature. If he had taken sport as a career, he would have been ideal in the boxing ring and probably traded leather in the heavyweight division.
I sat facing the entrance into the hotel.
It was a basic safety and awareness exercise driven into me while covering stable and unstable countries so that one could not miss unfolding news.
Mudenge sat with his back to the entrance of the hotel. The conversation had eventually turned into an interview as he had begun to narrate developments he was overseeing in his province of Masvingo.
Sure enough, as I sat during the interview with him, I noticed Grace, accompanied by female aides and a few males stroll into the hotel lobby.
In the biting cold of Paris, she had short black and immaculate hair and was wearing a long black skirt with a grey top which, was covered by a black poncho.
She reminded me of a raven.
My attitude then, as I observed her sashay into the hotel lobby was that she was in every sense a trophy wife and would not be interested or influence the politics of the country.
A fatal mistake, particularly for those involved in the internal politics of Zanu PF. Everybody appeared to have made the mistake of not taking the former typist in Mugabe’s office seriously.
As she approached, heading for the elevators she appeared to notice and identify some of the officials on the presidential entourage and she nodded to them.
The officials did not disappoint either — they all but rolled over like obedient puppies to have their bellies tickled. She appeared to be enjoying the adulation and the fawning behaviour of government mandarins.
Mudenge and a few officials who had their backs to the entrance did not take notice so we continued with our conversation, although I was now watching the fascinating display of power being exhibited in the foyer of a hotel in far off France.
She appeared to notice Mudenge and a few officials and for the first time, I heard her speak. At the top of her voice, she shrilled in the vernacular Shona language: “Murikupira midzimu yekupi?” (What traditional rituals are you conducting?)
I was shocked by the reaction from Mudenge and other government officials.
Zimbabwe’s chief diplomat at the time for all his size, appeared to turn grey before he sprang up with the agility of a gazelle.
“I am going!” he all but screamed at me curtly as he made a beeline towards Grace and appeared to be apologising profusely for dereliction of duty.
He escorted her into the elevator of at the Ritz Hotel and appeared to continue prostrating himself before Grace as she looked at him sternly.
I had just witnessed an awesome display of power and flexing of muscles by the perceived mild tempered wife of the president far away from home in Zimbabwe, Africa — on European shores.
I immediately changed my opinion that this was anything but a laid back woman happy to stay in Mugabe’s shadow. This woman was powerful and wielded a lot of influence. Grace Ntombizodwa Marufu Mugabe had arrived.
Seventeen years later, in 2014, Zimbabweans would witness her awesome display of power as she hounded vice-president Joice Mujuru out of Zanu PF, while her husband looked on indulgently.
South African born, Grace Ntombizodwa had arrived.
Many assumed it was because she wanted to replace her with her chosen proxy to protect her family’s vast business empire. Again they were wrong, as she was putting together an elaborate plan to become vice-president. Maybe even succeed her husband as president of Zimbabwe. We will never know following the military intervention which was “targeting criminals around” Mugabe.