But it may well have been more than the death of his beloved sister that shattered Mugabe and sent his health into what is reported to be further decline.
According to one of Mugabe’s most trusted bodyguards who was present at the time, Sabina Mugabe, 75, warned her brother before she died that he was being betrayed by two of the most important people in his personal and political life: his wife and his personal banker, a pivotal member of his regime.
Sabina told the president that Grace and Gideon Gono, the powerful head of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and Mugabe’s confidant, were secret lovers.
Grace, 41 years Mugabe’s junior, has taken lovers before. One lover, Peter Pamire, died in a mysterious car accident. James Makamba, one of Zimbabwe’s richest businessmen and a top-ranking Zanu-PF official, enjoyed her favours but their affair ended in tears, too, when a furious and sexually jealous Mugabe ran him out of town in fear of his life.
But never before has Grace been romantically involved with a politician in Mugabe’s inner circle. And never before has a man so close to the president risked allowing it to happen.
The dangers from discovery are high. Zimbabwe state intelligence officials made it known that Mugabe’s detection of the affair had already led to the murder of the bodyguard present at Sabina’s bedside and more trouble would almost certainly follow.
"Once he hears something like that, I think someone will go and meet God," said one intelligence official.
A pillar of the regime who Mugabe personally appointed in 2003 to head the central bank, Gono was a person he absolutely trusted ; furthermore, he was a family friend. The two have known each other since 1995 when Mugabe appointed Gono, then chief executive of a major Harare commercial bank, to be his personal banker.
"Mugabe trusted Gono. He even thought our boss was taking care of the first lady keeping a protective eye on her so that she could not again be adulterous," said one senior official in Gono’s office who became aware of their secret affair, and who spoke out about it for the first time last month, on condition of anonymity.
Another in Gono’s entourage said Gono and Grace, who are business partners in several enterprises in Zimbabwe and South Africa, had been planning a life together after Mugabe’s death.
Mugabe’s marriage to Grace is itself founded on an adulterous relationship which shocked many Zimbabweans at the time. Grace was working as a junior secretary in the typing pool in Mugabe’s office and married to an air force officer when the two began having an affair. They had two children while Mugabe’s first wife, Sally – who was universally popular – battled a terminal kidney disease. After her death in 1996, Mugabe wed Grace, who is widely loathed and notorious for her lavish shopping sprees.
The Gono source said Grace and Gono first became romantically involved in 2005 and had seen each other regularly since. When they could not find an excuse to meet in South Africa or further abroad, they met at Gushungu Dairy Estate, Grace’s 1000ha farm about an hour from Harare.
They met twice, sometimes three times, a month.
They also met at the Harare home of a woman friend and business associate of Grace who is a Zanu-PF stalwart. They exchanged e-mails, which one official privy to them described as "explicit".
He said Mugabe had always naively accepted as true Grace’s story that she and Gono are related. They are not, although both come from the town of Chivhu, 200km south of Harare.
The enormity of Gono’s betrayal would have come as a devastating emotional shock to Mugabe when Sabina revealed it to him.
Mugabe went to visit his sister between 6pm and 7pm on July 26 in the intensive care ward at the Avenues Clinic in Harare. As he sat on her bed with senior police commissioner Cain Chademana, his most trusted bodyguard, at his side, she told him the truth.
Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) officials said Chademana told them of the discussion afterwards and said that the president left the meeting devastated.
"At first, Mugabe did not want to believe it was true, but Sabina told him to ask his men about the affair and make up his own mind," said the officials, quoting what Chademana had told them.
"It was maddening because Mugabe had encouraged their friendship and sometimes asked Grace to see Gono to discuss mutual business matters."
In early August, a few days after Sabina’s funeral, Mugabe and Grace left together for China on an official visit.
Mugabe took his sister’s advice when he returned to Harare later in August, the state intelligence officials said .
He summoned his bodyguard, Chademana, to tell him exactly what had been going on. Like others in the state security services close to the Mugabes, Chademana had had good reason to believe Grace and Gono were having an affair even before Sabina revealed it in his presence, but had thought it wisest to keep quiet about it.
When Mugabe summoned him in August, "Chademana admitted that he knew something was going on which he had not said before", said the state security officials.
"Mugabe is said to have gone very silent."
It was a fatal admission. A matter of days later, at the end of August, Chademana mysteriously died. State security officials handed over his body to his son, Welcome, for burial. No autopsy was performed. The dead police officer was a decorated veteran of Zimbabwe’s liberation war in the 1970s. He had served as Mugabe’s aide de camp for many years and officials in the president’s office let it be known that Mugabe was deeply shocked.
"It will be difficult for us to come to terms with this sad reality," said Albert Ngulube, the department’s assistant director in a speech at Chademana’s funeral.
"We are not a murderous organisation but peace-loving Zimbabweans who are determined to protect our country."
His remarks stopped further speculation of foul play arising from the bodyguard’s sudden demise.
But CIO sources last week revealed that Chademana was poisoned under Mugabe’s instructions by Mugabe’s intelligence men, allegedly employing an undetectable poison. The instructions were carried out after Mugabe had briefed Happyton Bonyongwe, the director general of the CIO.
It was a desperate measure to keep Grace’s affair with Gono from leaking out and making a mockery of the ageing president.
"Mugabe wanted it hushed up at all costs," said a security official. "Gono is his personal banker, knows Mugabe’s financial secrets and is trusted. And there he is betraying the old man by having an affair with his wife.
"It would be too humiliating and could not be allowed to stand. In addition, Mugabe concluded that Chademana was the source of humiliating leaks about the president’s deteriorating health."
Mugabe hopes the embarrassing secret of his wife’s infidelity with one of his right-hand men is safely buried with the body of the hapless Chademana in the Warren Hills cemetery outside Harare.
The reserve bank governor’s betrayal presents Mugabe with a dilemma. Throughout most of the last decade of political turmoil and economic meltdown Gono was central to Mugabe’s survival in power.
As the controller of the state coffers, he wielded enormous influence and patronage essentially saving Mugabe’s presidency by finding ways to keep the money flowing when the value of the Zimbabwe dollar had collapsed through hyperinflation.
By dipping into the coffers to fund all Zanu-PF projects, seeing the army generals and the security services were paid and bankrolling the party’s 2008 terror campaign to get Mugabe re-elected, Gono made himself indispensable.
After the reaching of a power-sharing agreement last year when Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai joined a coalition with Mugabe, Gono lost some of his power. But he still remains vitally important to Mugabe and the key figures in his regime and cannot be easily got rid of.
As Mugabe’s personal banker Gono, 50, manages the president’s vast family fortune looted from the country which Mugabe and Grace have stashed away in an opaque network of overseas bank accounts, business ventures and properties, many in the Far East. He also looks after the financial interests of General Constantine Chiwenga, the armed forces chief and others who surround Mugabe at the top and have enriched themselves through their positions.
A measure of Gono’s importance is that Mugabe unilaterally reappointed him to his post last year against considerable opposition from Tsvangirai and, clearly feeling his departure would be highly damaging, he has ever since resisted all demands to dismiss him.
Meanwhile, it looks as if Chademana’s killing could backfire. There are rumblings of discontent within the state intelligence agency where officers, already demoralised by low pay and the killing of Chademana, are talking. Last week several came forward with more revelations which showed the depth of Gono’s betrayal.
One who worked in Gono’s office said he first became aware of his boss’s affair with Grace several years ago when he accompanied him to Malaysia on official business.
During the visit Gono, who had been booked into the Sheraton hotel in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, quickly disappeared to the Berjaya Langkawi beach and spa resort on the island of Langkawi to see her.
The source said that he and his colleagues thought nothing of it until they came to settle Gono and Grace’s hotel bill for the stay and found they were paying for a double room.
Asked how he reacted he said: "In our job we never trust anyone. Even those we are working with we don’t trust. We saw and kept quiet. It is very sensitive."
At the end of last year, he said, the couple had shared a room at the Cape Grace hotel in Cape Town. Another of Mugabe’s right-hand men, the former Air Vice-Marshal Robert Mhlanga – a key figure in the controversial exploitation of Zimbabwe’s Marange diamond field which is so rich it could make Zimbabwe the world’s top diamond producer – was also said to be aware of Grace’s affair with Gono but kept silent.
Mhlanga has hosted the couple at his Johannesburg house on several occasions during their so-called business trips to South Africa.
"Ask me for another trip like that!" Grace said to Gono afterwards in one e-mail message seen by the official.
More incriminating claims came from the workers at Gushungu, Grace’s dairy farm, an hour’s drive from Harare.
The couple pass off their frequent visits to the farm as business and make a point of arriving and leaving separately.
"At first I did not think anything was going on between them outside business because each time Gono came he bought money with him for the farmworkers," said one.
"But later on I started suspecting that something was going on each time we visited the house after they had gone.
"No one was allowed inside while they were there. After they left we went back inside. At once it was clear the bedroom had been used for their meeting even though the first lady’s bodyguards had tidied up. They had remade the bed but we could see the sheets had been used. And we noticed the perfume in the bedroom."
Asked if it surprised him that Gono and Grace were using the farm for an affair, one worker said: "I am not surprised by it. Some others might be. But those who worked at the farm and particularly those who worked in the house will not be astonished.
"It was only going to be a matter of time before someone said it for us. We could not say it ourselves because of fear." -The Sunday Times (SA)