FIRST Lady Grace Mugabe last Friday reportedly chickened out of a dinner dance meant to raise funds for President Robert Mugabe’s 92nd birthday bash set for Saturday.

Grace was supposed to be the guest of honour at the fund-raising dinner dance held at a top hotel in Harare, but reportedly withdrew under a cloud a day before the event.

Tourism minister Walter Mzembi was then roped in at short notice to replace her and preside over the event.

“She (Grace) had been billed to be guest of honour, but we were advised that she would not be coming a day before the event,” a Zanu PF insider said on condition of anonymity.

“She is said to have received intelligence that some youths planned to ambush the event and to air their grievances about what was happening in the party (Zanu PF) and the lies she is being fed by the Generation 40 (G40) group.”

Mzembi yesterday declined to be drawn into details.

“There is no need for the hype or speculation. I just received a simple letter to the effect that I should officiate at the event and nothing more,” Mzembi said.

Zanu PF Youth League secretary for information Evelyn Mpofu initially seemed to confirm that Grace was supposed to be guest of honour.

She, however, later chose to be diplomatic, saying she did not have “full details and will consult”.

“Yes, she (Grace) was, but I am actually travelling to Harare now. Let me consult first. I actually travelled from Harare on Friday and do not have full details.
I will call you back,” she said.

But Pupurai Togarepi, the Zanu PF politburo member for youths, was non-committal.

“I do not know. We were given Mzembi as the guest of honour and he represented the interests of the party,” he said.

Another Youth League official, who spoke on condition he was not identified, confirmed Grace had chickened out at the last hour.

“For some reason, she decided she was no longer coming and we were advised Mzembi was coming instead,” the source said.

“We wanted to capitalise on her power, but then the factional fights won the day. Her advisers in the G40 faction instilled fear in her. She seemed to have been told that she would be booed, which really is nonsense.”

Grace’s choice of replacement raised eyebrows among ruling party officials angling to succeed Mugabe.

“Mugabe is capable of anything and could spring a surprise. While it has become clear he is rooting for his wife, anything is possible. He could appoint someone outside his inner circle, it is still a distinct possibility,” a source said.

Mzembi is one of the few Zanu PF cadres reportedly sitting on the fence regarding the nasty internal struggles currently rocking the ruling party.

Political analyst Alexander Rusero said Grace could have pulled a masterstroke in the midst of vicious infighting.

“The choice of Mzembi could be a way of sanitising the event, which is supposed to symbolise unity at a time the party is rocked by factional fights between two groups,” he said.

Meanwhile, a handful of opposition MDC-T youths in Masvingo yesterday held a protest march in the city, demanding that Mugabe’s birthday bash be cancelled and all resources mobilised for the event channelled towards drought relief food.

The ruling party will reportedly spend at least $800 000 on the bash.

The placard-waving youths were singing and toyi-toying, denouncing Mugabe’s plans for the bash when many were wallowing in poverty and staring starvation.

Some of the placards read: “We want jobs, not bash”; “A serious government cares for its people”; and “Mugabe’s regime must fall”.

The youths marched along Robert Mugabe Road before police dispersed them.

It could not be established at the time of going to print whether police had made any arrests.

In a related development, youths from Temba Mliswa’s Youth Advocacy for Reform and Democracy have also threatened a similar demonstration in Masvingo on Friday.