Hong Kong’s controversial connection with Zimbabwe’s first couple, Robert and ‘Gucci Grace’ Mugabe

Likely facing the end of his iron-fisted reign, Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old president Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace’s previous sojourns to the city have showcased their extravagant – and violent – ways

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 November, 2017, 1:21pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 November, 2017, 3:12pm

As the country’s biggest foreign investor, China will continue to play a significant role in a new Zimbabwe following the military takeover of the country on Wednesday and likely ouster of its 93-year-old president Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe, who has ruled the African nation with an iron fist since it gained independence from Britain in 1980, is under house arrest, marking what many expect to be the start of a power transition.

Beijing has a solid economic foothold in Zimbabwe, having invested in more than 128 projects there between 2000 and 2012. On a state visit in 2015, President Xi Jinping described it as one of China’s “all-weather friends”.

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But Hong Kong too has a connection with Mugabe and his family, though it is made up of encounters steeped in controversy.

Several star Mugabe’s colourful – and much younger – wife Grace, whose trips to the city served to indulge an appetite for high-end shopping so voracious it would make former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos blush.

The couple first met when Grace, now 52, worked as Mugabe’s secretary. They later married and had two children.

Undoubtedly the most notorious Hong Kong incident involved an act of naked violence, with “Gucci Grace”, as she has been nicknamed by international media, the perpetrator.

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On January 19, 2009, the Post reported: “Police are investigating an alleged assault on a newspaper photographer by the wife of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe while she was on a shopping trip to the city.”

Grace Mugabe, then 43, was accused of repeatedly punching Richard Jones, chief photographer of the Hong Kong agency Sinopix, after he took pictures of her shopping on Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui.

Jones and a colleague were on assignment for Britain’s Sunday Times, tailing Mugabe as she left the Kowloon Shangri-La hotel to go shopping with a bodyguard and a female friend.

Following the assault, Jones told the Post: “They noticed me taking pictures when she was about 150 metres from her hotel and began shouting at me.

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“The bodyguard chased after me. I ran, but I was carrying heavy camera gear, and he caught up with me after 30 metres and tried to get my camera off me. Then I saw Grace Mugabe coming at me. She launched herself at me, tried to grab my camera and then directed punches at my face. She hit me at least 10 times in the face and head.”

Mugabe’s diamond-encrusted ring cut into Jones when she hit him, he said.

“She was screaming and shouting, and her bodyguard was, too. I was holding on to the camera so I couldn’t defend myself.”

Jones reported the incident to police two days later, by which time Mugabe and her entourage had left Hong Kong. He later said a doctor had found at least nine marks on his face, mouth and below his mouth and chin, and on both temples.

The Department of Justice later said Grace Mugabe was not prosecuted for the alleged assault because she was entitled to diplomatic immunity as the president’s wife.

A month after the alleged assault, a student union called on the government to deport the couple’s daughter, Bona, who was reportedly studying in Hong Kong under an alias.

However, it was later established that a Bona Mugabe was enrolled at City University, with a spokesman saying that she was admitted based on common admission guidelines and would be afforded no special privileges.

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Amid their ongoing exploits, the Mugabes have continued to find a shelter of sorts in Hong Kong – and in Singapore, where the ageing Robert Mugabe travels regularly for medical treatment – given that they are regarded as pariahs in the Western world.

Despite his advanced age, Mr Mugabe seems to have a penchant for shopping, like his pugnacious wife Grace.

In February 2010, the African leader swept into Harbour City on Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, with a gaggle of security officers from the Hong Kong police VIP protection unit. He headed straight for a high-end tailor’s shop before moving on to a shoe and accessories outlet.

The shopping trip came after Mugabe visited Beijing, where then president Hu Jintao received him in the Great Hall of the People and he also met then vice-president Xi Jinping.

A fellow shopper in Harbour City that day, who asked to be identified only as a 40-year-old teacher from Hong Kong, said he was walking through the mall with his wife when he locked eyes with the Zimbabwean leader.

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“I looked him straight in the eye and he did likewise to me, then we both smiled,” the man said.

“I obviously recognised him right away but pretty much everyone else had no idea who he was. There were some heavy-duty security people around him and as I stayed to look at him they made it quite clear that they were watching me. He looked pretty relaxed.”

Yet for all the first family’s demonstrations of extravagance, their country’s finances have also come under scrutiny in the city.

Last October, it was reported that the Zimbabwe consulate in Hong Kong was being sued by a landlord in the High Court. The landlord said the consulate had failed to pay HK$610,000 in rent.

One report worked out that, what with the Zimbabwean economy’s extreme hyperinflation in recent years, the consulate owed the landlord around Z$781,629,399,580,210,900,000.

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A year earlier, a legal tussle between the country and a Taiwanese-born South African citizen over a luxury home in Tai Po, New Territories, made the news.

The three-storey upmarket villa at JC Castle along Shan Tong Road was reportedly bought under the name of Hsieh Ping-sung for HK$40 million in June 2008, with media reports suggesting that this was done before Bona Mugabe began her studies in Hong Kong.

But according to one report, the Mugabes claimed the villa belonged to the Zimbabwe government and their daughter had been “borrowing” it.

The claim was challenged by Hsieh, also known as Jack Ping, a businessman who used to be one of the Mugabes’ closest friends and advisers.

He insisted the house belonged to him all along.

The outcome of the court case is unclear at this time.