Justice watch

Grace Mugabe soapy's real drama still ahead?

Grace Mugabe

If not for real, last week’s news drama, featuring Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe, in the lead, with SA’s Ministers of Police, and of International Relations in support roles, it could’ve been a hit soap opera.

It opened with Grace Mugabe’s latest tantrum while on personal business in South Africa. And, true to form, the SA Government’s (SAG) responded spectacularly ineptly, reminiscent of the Al- Bashir fiasco.

And, over the weekend, it became clear that the final episode probably still lies ahead despite Minister of International Relations, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, announcing that the wayward first lady was granted diplomatic immunity. In true soapy style she is said to have “agonised” over her decision.

Expect civil society to play a prominent role in the final episodes, which, like happened in the Al-Bashir case, are likely to see the Zuma-administration with judicial egg all over its face.

Government’s response

The SAG had to respond after Ms Mugabe’s vicious assault on a young female model she found in the company of her two sons in their suite at an upmarket Johannesburg hotel.

Initial law enforcement reaction was firm, condemning the incident, promising thorough investigation, and Mugabe’s arrest, if necessary.

Then, it started unraveling and went terribly pear-shaped. Minister of Police, Fikile Mbalula, in customary flashy style, confidently informed the public Mugabe had handed herself over, and would appear in court Tuesday afternoon. 

He also said a diplomatic passport will not prevent her arrest, if necessary – only to contradict himself later, saying the SA Police Service  (SAPS) confirmed they would not  arrest her until receiving a request from the Department of International Relation (Dirco).

 He also acknowledged that SAPS have avoided arresting Grace Mugabe as a result of her status, and then, in an attempt to cover apparent discomfort, gave the assurance she will not leave South Africa because “We … had already put tabs (‘red alert’) on the borders in relation to her leaving the country.”

It became clear there was an attempt to cover-up the uncertainty of how to deal with the Mugabe hot potato to ensuring Grace Mugabe leave the country in style, not smuggled out hidden in the trunk of a car.

The Zimbabwean first lady also embarrassingly stood up Mbalula, failing to arrive at the court as he promised.

The SAPS’ acknowledged they did not know her whereabouts, while it was later in the day reported she was being accommodated in Pretoria at an unknown location, courtesy of the SAG. 


Her whereabouts became a game of cat and mouse almost immediately after her court non-appearance, sparking speculation if she was whisked away in Al-Bashir fashion to Zimbabwe.  

Several government sources, both Zimbabwean and South African, “confirmed” her return to Zimbabwe, even being reported as spotted in Harare. Later it emerged she never left, while Zimbabwean officials were discussing diplomatic immunity with the SAG.

These conflicting reports about her whereabouts were probably a deliberate ploy, by both governments, to create diversion and buy time, and space, to find a solution, with the least international repercussions and embarrassment.

Then, President Robert Mugabe arrived in South Africa a day ahead of schedule for a SADC meeting and, according to reports, immediately invoking diplomatic immunity to avoid his wife’s arrest.

President Zuma probably had a  sympathetic ear for Mugabe since he is one of the few true friends Zuma has left, reportedly offering unconditional support as Zuma’s political opponents “plot to oust him before his term expires.”

Zuma in turn, backed Mugabe in rejecting the view of Zimbabwe as a fragile state, publicly supporting Mugabe’s claim that Zimbabwe is one of the “most highly developed countries in Africa, second after South Africa”.

Immunity or ‘bribe’

Dirco’s legal advisers were initially of the view that Grace Mugabe does not quality for diplomatic immunity, being in South Africa on a private visit when she transgressed. 

Zimbabwe’s attempt to retrospectively insert her into its official SADC delegation, is also rejected. Under international treaties, immunity does not apply because she was not acting in an official capacity when the alleged crime took place. 

News 24 quoted an international law specialist who said it is impossible for Grace Mugabe to invoke diplomatic immunity if a diplomatic passport was not gazetted in advance of her trip, stipulating the reasons for the diplomatic passport.

The warning by a prominent lawyer that Grace Mugabe should be subjected to normal processes and be investigated because, ”anything else would result in lawlessness around the world by diplomats' families,” is not expected to have any impact on the SAG’s decision.

In the meantime, it came to light that the Mugabe’s simultaneously deployed a second, maybe fallback strategy, effectively trying ‘bribe’ her victim out of seeking legal justice. Lawyers for the young model said her family had been approached­ with an offer of money to drop the charges. They refused the offer.

“Plan A,” however delivered. Over the weekend Dirco in a statement announced that Grace Mugabe’s diplomatic immunity was warranted. It said their minister considered several factors before final decision, including the imperative to maintain good inter-governmental relations within the SADC region, and in particular, between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Echoing the situation during the Al- Bashir fiasco, when an African Union meeting took place in South Africa, the minister’s considerations this time round included that the assault incident “... coinciding with South Africa’s hosting of the 37th SADC Summit of Heads of State and Government and legal considerations.”

However, to suggest that it would be politically detrimental for South Africa to allow the law to take its course, is appalling to say the least.  What about a next time when a similar incident causes someone’s death? Do we also turn a blind eye for the sake of South Africa’s relations?

A murder case might already surface in the Mugabe drama. New evidence came to light that during the incident a pregnant worker was shoved to the floor, and lost her child despite being rushed to hospital.   

Public reaction

 Predictably, Grace Mugabe’s action led to a huge public outcry. This time overstepping her habit of assaulting people in temper tantrums, also coincided with the South African public already upset about slow government reaction to a deputy minister’s acknowledgement that he assaulted two women. 

Ironically, both assaults hapened during Women’s month. The ANC’s Women League’s low-key reaction to the affair is also in sharp contrast to when a member of the public face similar charges.

It only helps to strengthen public perceptions that the politically powerful and -connected are above the law, allowed to break it with impunity without consequences.

This is illustrated by the anger and disgust expressed, particularly on social platforms, in reaction to the Mugabe affair, and government’s handling of it.

Politicians, and the powerful, acting like 16th century aristocratic untouchables‚ seemingly oblivious to the fact that they owe their positions and privileges to those who elected them, are setting a bad example.

Not the final episode

However, Grace Mugabe’s departure on Sunday under the protective umbrella of diplomatic immunity, however, is not the last episode in this tasteless international soapy.

And, there is a new lead player from civil society. Civil rights organization Afriforum and well-known advocate Gerrie Nel gave notice before the formal announced in a Sunday edition of the Government Gazette of the granting of immunity, that they will support the victim, and see to it that justice prevails. They since confirmed that “the fight for justice would continue.”

The scenes for the next episode, or two-three, are likely to be set in court rooms. And, do not expect the Zuma-administration to fare better than it did in the Al-Bashir drama.

by Garth Cilliers

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