Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF confirms Mugabe's wife as women's head

Zimbabwe's First Lady Grace Mugabe addresses her maiden political rally in Chinhoyi October 2, 2014, after she was nominated to head the Zanu PF ruling party women's league two months ago. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party confirmed President Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace as the new head of its women’s wing at a congress on Saturday, underlining her swift political rise in the troubled southern African country.

Grace Mugabe’s appointment, approved by acclamation to the resounding cheers of 12,000 delegates in a parade ground in central Harare, gives her a seat on the ruling party’s top decision-making Politburo.

Over the last three months, the 49-year-old first lady has carried out a campaign against Vice President Joice Mujuru, who until recently was a leading contender in a behind-the-scenes battle to eventually succeed Zimbabwe’s 90-year-old leader.

Mugabe, who has ruled the former British colony since independence in 1980, openly denounced Mujuru when he opened the congress on Thursday, accusing her of leading a group within the ruling party intent on ousting him from power.

Mugabe’s comments appeared to effectively elbow out Mujuru from the race to take over from him as both ZANU-PF’s and Zimbabwe’s leader, leaving a seemingly clear path for her rival, Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.

The infighting within the ruling party has increased uncertainty in a country grappling with an economic meltdown which critics blame on decades of mismanagement by Mugabe.

His controversial policies, including the forcible acquisition of white-owned commercial farms for blacks, have alienated Western donors who also accuse the veteran leader of rigging elections since 2000 to stay in power.

Reporting by Ed Cropley and Cris Chinaka; Writing by Stella Mapenzauswa, Editing by Stephen Powell