Grace Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s first lady, has been accused of assaulting 20-year-old Gabriella Engels with an extension cord at a luxury hotel in Sandton‚ Johannesburg‚ on Sunday night‚ where Mugabe’s two sons were thought to be staying.
Engels on Monday opened a case of assault with the intent to cause grievous bodily harm at the Sandton police station‚ and Mugabe was widely thought to be appearing in court on Tuesday. She reportedly told the police that she would hand herself in for prosecution in court. But by the close of business she hadn’t been arrested or handed herself over to the police.
Police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo said, on Tuesday, that police had been “negotiating” with the legal representatives of the suspect in the assault case.
On Wednesday‚ Naidoo said no arrests had been made but “we will see as the morning and the day unfolds. We are focused on finalising the investigation“.
Wednesday came and a new tune came in. The Zimbabwe’s first lady hoped for diplomatic immunity.
Legal and professional opinion agreed on the irregularity of Mugabe’s claims for diplomatic immunity on an assault charge.
Former state prosecutor Gerrie Nel and lobby group AfriForum stepped in to support the complainant, 20-year-old model Gabriella Engels, and her family.
Nel, who heads AfriForum’s private prosecution wing, said he would take Engels’s case if the National Prosecuting Authority did not.
AfriForum CEO Kallie Kriel said Mugabe offered Engels to “come up with a figure” to make the case go away.
Hennie Strydom, a University of Johannesburg international law expert, said the law on diplomatic immunity was “clear. Simply, she isn’t covered by diplomatic immunity.”
Phephelaphi Dube, director of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, said: “Representatives of the state who are participating in an international conference can also receive immunity for the duration of the stay or meeting. But the agreement or decision to grant immunity must be published in the Government Gazette.” Mugabe would not ordinarily enjoy immunity, she said.
Justin Papka, who wrote an academic paper examining the 2009 incident in detail, published by the University of Kent in the UK, argued that diplomatic immunity traditionally granted to heads of state could be extended to their spouses under international common law.
On Thursday he told Sky News Africa: “Nations won’t prosecute family members of heads of state because of the PR outcome. Prosecuting would result in a cascade of political problems.” He said the claims for diplomatic immunity would only apply “if South Africa accepts that they will apply”.
However, shaming these legal opinions, the South African government granted and announced diplomatic immunity for the Zimbabwe’s State President’s wife whose husband was also coming to Pretoria for SADC assembly.
South African government sources said relations with neighbouring states were the main consideration.
Several sources said the decision was influenced by the need to protect political stability and trade relations in the SADC region after several other regional countries applied political pressure on South Africa on the sidelines of the regional body’s 37th summit that took place in Pretoria two days after the scenario.
Clayson Monyela, spokesman for the Department of International Relations, referred queries to the South African Police Service. SAPS spokesman Brigadier Vish Naidoo referred queries back to international relations.
It emerged that Police Minister Fikile Mbalula was ready to effect the arrest of Grace but was stopped following the intervention of International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.
Reports indicate that the Johannesburg scenario was actually a fourth incident where Grace Mugabe assaulted people and gotten away with it. She also managed to evade arrest and prosecution in Hong Kong after a similar incident in 2009 when she was granted immunity.
During the Johannesburg fracas, which happened at Capital Hotel situated at Capital 20 West in Sandton, a waitress suffered a miscarriage after she was pushed by the ambushed son, Robert Mugabe jnr., as he fled his mother Grace Mugabe’s violent attack.
The waitress was delivering food when Robert jnr ran past her and pushed her out of the way. The woman fell to the ground and was rushed to hospital, where she later lost her baby.
A hotel employee confirmed the incident.
“She was not hit by Grace. It was Robert jnr who pushed her out of the way as he ran away from his mother. Grace did hit staff members … She was hitting everyone – her sons, their friends, the girls and staff members.”
Another hotel staff member, who did not want to be named, said the waitress had been delivering food on that floor when she got caught in the fracas.
“There was a meeting between Grace Mugabe’s people and the hotel’s human resources people on Tuesday,” he said.
Garnet Basson, chief operating officer at The Capital Hotel Group, did not confirm or deny the incident, but said: “We are handling this thing internally. Please respect that. We will decide on how to deal with this matter going forward.
“It’s the staff member’s privacy that we must respect. I can assure you that we are doing everything in all aspects to ensure that we follow the necessary steps.”
A source said Grace also assaulted a manager at the hotel.
A week of chaos and recriminations, which began with Grace assaulting local model Gabriella Engels with an electrical cord, ended with the two countries on the brink of a full-blown diplomatic row as they blocked each other’s flights.
On Saturday, the diplomatic nightmare intensified and spilt over into a major aviation crisis.
Thousands of passengers flying between Zimbabwe and South Africa were left stranded as civil aviation authorities from both countries grounded flights after what insiders said was “political interference” – and an attempt to force the South African government to grant Grace diplomatic immunity.
The furore began when a flight to Harare by Air Zimbabwe – operated by President Mugabe’s son-in-law Simba Chikore – was grounded on Friday night.
Government sources said the plane was due to fly the Mugabes back to Harare on Saturday.
Following a meeting with all aviation entities, Transport Minister Joe Maswanganyi assured the matter would be resolved within a day.
Maswanganyi said Air Zimbabwe and South African Airways did not have the required foreign operator’s permit, and both airlines had been instructed to comply with regulations.
“From the South African side, the SAA issue was a coincidence and had nothing to do with the restriction of the Air Zimbabwe aircraft by the SA Civil Aviation Authority, ” a statement read on Sunday.
The meeting followed “retaliation” from Zimbabwe in which SAA operations in Zimbabwe were halted after flights into and out of Harare, Bulawayo and Victoria Falls were cancelled over what the airline said were “restrictions” imposed by Zimbabwe’s aviation authorities related to the requirement of a foreign operator’s permit for its aircraft.
British Airways, operated by Comair, also cancelled its flights into Harare and Victoria Falls.
The standoff is believed to have been sparked by the grounding of the Air Zimbabwe plane at OR Tambo International Airport.
David Chawota, chief executive of the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe, told the Sky News Africa on Sunday that Zimbabwean authorities were “enforcing” regulations and had not imposed any restrictions on SAA operations, as claimed by the airline.
“We don’t have any restrictions; we are simply doing an enforcement of the regulations and this is over noncompliance to operational issues as SAA doesn’t have a foreign operator’s permit. But they [SAA] are making efforts to redress the situation,” he said.
With a combined nine daily flights into Harare, Bulawayo and Victoria Falls, the standoff could harm SAA’s grip on the lucrative airline industry in Zimbabwe, which it dominates.
Chawota said the action against SAA “was not a tit for tat”.
In Victoria Falls, SAA passengers were ferried by bus from Victoria Falls Airport to board their flight from Livingstone Airport in Zambia – where it is understood SAA planes were landing.
SAA spokesman Tlali Tlali said the airline was “completely surprised” by the events.
Tlali said 120 passengers were on board flight SA025 from Harare to Johannesburg.
“This was surprising as we have been operating that route for more than 20 years. We are still trying to understand it,” said Tlali, who did not want to comment on whether the Zimbabwean step was in retaliation for the Air Zimbabwe plane being grounded.
“In total, there were supposed to have been eight flights operated by SAA into and out of Zimbabwe on Saturday – some to and from Harare, and some to and from Victoria Falls,” said Tlali.
“We have decided not to operate those flights until the situation changes. If the situation changes.”
Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Kabelo Ledwaba said the Air Zimbabwe flight was prevented from leaving on Friday when a routine “ramp inspection” uncovered the absence of a foreign operator’s permit.