HARARE – South Africa’s decision to grant diplomatic immunity to First Lady Grace Mugabe in the face of accusations of assaulting a young model in Johannesburg has sparked outrage in that country and here in Zimbabwe with activists and the opposition calling on the girl’s attorneys to pursue the matter through private prosecution.
In a statement, Pretoria confirmed giving the immunity to President Robert Mugabe’s wife in a notice published on Sunday that recognised “the immunities and privileges of the first lady of the Republic of Zimbabwe, … Grace Mugabe”.
Zimbabwe Higher Education minister Jonathan Moyo said on microblogging site Twitter: “This is an affirmation of international law.”
Gabriella Engels, a 20-year-old model, said Grace attacked her last week in full view of her bodyguards and hotel staff, whipping her with an extension cord that cut her forehead.
Civil rights watchdog AfriForum said they would launch an urgent interdict on behalf of Engels to reverse the decision to grant Grace immunity.
AfriForum’s lawyer, Willie Spies, said they believed their review application would succeed as it was based on “very good grounds”.
Spies said if they win in court that would open doors for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to prosecute Grace.
“If the NPA refuses to prosecute, AfriForum’s private prosecuting unit… is ready to go ahead with private prosecution on behalf of Engels,” AfriForum chief executive officer Kallie Kriel said in a statement yesterday.
Engels’ mother, Debbie, said she was outraged authorities let Grace get away without any investigation.
“More than half the country is enraged about what happened; our government didn’t act in the interest of citizens on the ground by granting her diplomatic immunity,” Debbie said, adding Engels was also “very upset” at the controversial decision.
“She’s understandably also very upset. She was attacked by this woman without any provocation, there’s no reason whatsoever why this woman hit my daughter.”
South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance said the case demonstrated the need for a review of the Vienna Convention, which grants immunity from arrest, criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits.
It called for a parliamentary probe into Pretoria’s decision, saying government has “no more legitimacy in the arena of international diplomacy and displays a total disregard for the rule of law.”
DA chief whip John Steenhuisen said: “We’re going to do the motion in the House during the sitting tomorrow (today). We’ll also be writing to the chairpersons of the three portfolio committees, asking them to summon the ministers to explain to Parliament their role in this matter, particularly as it’s hot on the heels of the admonishment by the courts of the way South Africa handled the Omar al-Bashir departure from South Africa.”
South Africa was last month found to have violated its obligations to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by failing to arrest Sudan’s President Hassan al-Bashir when he visited in 2015, the ICC judges said in a ruling.
MDC spokesperson Obert Gutu said the granting of diplomatic immunity to Grace was more of a political than a legalistic decision.
“South Africa found herself in a spot of serious diplomatic bother as soon as the issue of diplomatic immunity was raised by Grace’s legal team as well as the government of Zimbabwe,” Gutu, who is also a lawyer, said.
“The need to preserve and maintain cordial and fraternal relations between South Africa and Zimbabwe was more pressing and overbearing than the need to let the law take its course. Strictly speaking, and in accordance with the basic tenets of public international law on the subject of diplomatic immunity, Grace didn’t qualify to be granted immunity.
“Firstly, she is not a government official and neither was she on any specific government mission as a special envoy or something like that when she battered and assaulted … Engels in that hotel room a few days ago. Grace was purely on a personal and private frolic of her own. Being married to a head of state doesn’t necessarily grant diplomatic immunity to Grace,” added Gutu.
Gutu said travelling on a diplomatic passport does not also necessarily mean that the holder of such a passport is automatically entitled to diplomatic immunity for whatever legal transgressions that they might commit in a foreign country.
“The long and short of it is that the diplomatic immunity that was granted to Grace was legally incompetent and procedurally improper. It was simply a political decision that cannot successfully withstand scrutiny in a competent court of law,” the MDC spokesperson said.
Earlier, community-based organisations, activists and social movements had met in Pretoria and Johannesburg for the annual national Sadc People’s Summit, which came up with recommendations for the regional bloc’s secretariat to feed into regional policy processes.
“At the People’s Summit, our recommendation to Sadc … is that they come up with some sort of code of conduct for their government officials, their spouses and children to abide by,” said Zimbabwean activist Diana Nyikadzino.
“A code of conduct that mainly includes avoiding inciting xenophobia in and outside their borders, I gave an example of Grace’s conduct as well as the minister of Police (Fikile Mbalula)’s utterances over that issue where he accused Zimbabweans as the ones mainly committing robberies and the Gauteng mayor (Herman) Mashaba who indicated that mainly foreigners occupied buildings illegally.”
Nyikadzino spoke as social media was abuzz with messages urging the Zimbabwean community in South Africa to desist from speaking in Shona in public.
“Please, warn them not to move alone over the next few days and not to speak in Shona publicly. There is a real chance that some overzealous South Africans might decide to attack ordinary Zimbabweans because of the Grace … incident.”
In another social media post on Facebook, a South African man called Jacob Zulu said all Zimbabweans should leave that country before being attacked.
This comes after anti-immigrant violence flared sporadically in South Africa in February against the background of near-record unemployment, with foreigners being accused of taking jobs from citizens and involvement in crime.
Shops were shuttered in Marabastad, an area of western Pretoria, where many foreign nationals have their stores, and roads were blocked.
“Ok if that’s the case, we give Zimbos 24 hours to leave our country. Xenophobia must start a.s.a.p. They have vomited on our justice system,” Zulu said.
A Zimbabwean human rights lawyer, who declined to be named, fearing reprisals, said: “We realise that the laws and conventions are such that there is little South Africa could have done to prevent her from leaving. But what message is this sending? That as a Zimbabwean national, you can go to South Africa and perpetrate such brutal crimes against a poor girl with no repercussions?
“The convention needs to be changed to waive immunity for heinous crimes like violence. It’s a black spot on all of us if nothing is done. The United Nations needs to look into changing this convention.”
Piers Pigou, senior consultant at the International Crisis Group, said the diplomatic immunity granted to the first lady needed to be tested in the South African courts first.
“It may not be the convention that requires review, but rather the manner in which it is employed. It remains to be seen what defence or explanation the government will present if AfriForum seeks a review of their decision to grant Grace a free pass, as they have said they will,” said Pigou.
“We have seen the South African government go through the motions in this regard as with its blatant violation of the Rome Statute and its own domestic legislation. It is the South African government’s selective adherence to its own rule book that is of primary concern at this juncture. It would seem Zimbabwe has its own challenges to deal with.”