Africa Watch

Political implications of the Grace Mugabe affair


The main front in ‘Battle Grace Mugabe’ for South Africa has become legal, but the political implications should not be forgotten.

Much has been said and written on the Grace Mugabe incident and, as has become the norm in South Africa, the matter has now entered the legal stage.

Civil rights organization Afriforum and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) have asked the courts to nullify the South African Government’s (SAG) decision to grant her diplomatic immunity.

Based on the view of most legal experts, it is likely that the SAG could again receive another klap (smack) from the court.


The inexcusable and distasteful action of Grace Mugabe in a Johannesburg hotel placed the SAG has not only in a no-win situation. The controversial and highly unpopular, albeit expected, decision to grant her immunity, and allow her to leave the country unscathed, will have repercussions, locally and abroad.

The SAG, in particular the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco), were at pains to explain that the immunity decision was influenced by the need to protect political stability and trade relations in the SADC region, particularly Zimbabwe, and to safeguard the SADC meeting in Pretoria that was underway at the time.  

For many it is difficult to understand and accept the SAG’s decision and, as a result, Dirco minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane’s remark that she “agonized” over the, “painful to make” decision, was widely scorned. 

A senior government official, attempting to explain the dilemma, said: “So because of the overwhelming diplomatic and political impact of this issue, the decision is you grant the immunity, but that does not mean you don’t understand and appreciate the seriousness of the alleged crime.”

It does, however, fail to answer the moral question of justifying immunity for someone accused of a crime, given that criminal conduct, including assault, is not associated with official business between two sovereign states?

Nor do the view of many analysts that the SAG had no choice but to let Grace Mugabe get off scot free because of possible retaliation by her husband.

Any retaliation by President Mugabe would have negative consequences for both countries, but for Zimbabwe the prize will be much higher.

As one analyst explained: “The wrath of Zimbabwe, which is, to all intents and purposes, dependent on South African employment, energy and aid, is not something the South African government should fret about. Government should be more concerned with upholding the Rule of Law.”

In the case of Al-Bashir the wrong decision was taken, but one could sympathize with the dilemma confronting the SAG in that instance. However, in the Grace Mugabe case, the SAG capitulated without any quid pro quo, and the person causing all the trouble, absconded without any consequences.

To add injury to insult, foreign diplomats quoted in the media in general expressed amazement and were dumbstruck by the SAG’s decision making it look weak. It sends a message that it is willing to look the other way and will bend the rules when “friends,” including a serial offender, transgress at the expense of its own citizens.

A political analyst summed up the general feeling of South Africans, saying: “They’ve (SAG) clearly demonstrated that, as in Animal Farm, some animals are more equal than others. But we shouldn’t be surprised; this is Jacob Zuma’s kingdom after all.”

Possible redress

However, redress could still follow, and hopefully will. According to legal experts Grace Mugabe may not always enjoy diplomatic immunity – for example, after her husband ceases to be president. South African law also stipulates that the right to bring a prosecution for a serious crime like assault, does not expire for 20 years.

“It’s conceivable that a person who once enjoyed diplomatic immunity, but who no longer benefits from it, will face justice at some future date. This assumes that they find themselves back in the country in which the alleged crime took place,” according to Law expert Gerhard Kemp

Presidential ambition in jeopardy

Observers believe that Grace Mugabe’s latest antics might have dealt her presidential ambitions a damaging, if not fatal blow. Her volatile temper is a handicap and irreconcilable to the dignity and gravitas that is expected from the occupant of the highest office in the country.

 The succession battle in Zimbabwe is wide open, and a matter of much speculation as 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe forbids any discussion. Already endorsed as ZANU-PF’s candidate for next year’s presidential election, it came as a surprise to all when Grace recently challenged him in public to name his successor.

She has serious presidential ambitions and an active and aggressive participant in the political power play within the ruling ZANU-PF party as possible succession contenders jockey for the inside line.

Not only was she instrumental in forcing former Vice-president Joyce Mujuru, and a one-time contender, from the ruling party but she is also involved in plans to sabotage Vice-president’s Emmerson Mnangagwa’s presidential ambitions.

To date President Mugabe has refrained from endorsing his wife, and should he die without naming a successor, it is an open question whether Grace Mugabe will survive the succession battle.

Without the presence and support of her husband, she might well find herself in the political wilderness, and her volatile temper and rampage in a Johannesburg hotel could return to haunt her. She might try to bury it, but her political opponents will not allow people to forget it.     

Should the incident, and its the aftermath, eventually play a role in burying Grace Mugabe’s plans to succeed her husband, and sink any notion of establishing a Mugabe dynasty, many would say that at least some justice was served.


by Garth Cilliers

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