• Assaults model in Johannesburg
• South Africa’s opposition challenges her immunity
By Emma Emeozor
It is uncultured in Africa for a guest to abuse the hospitality of his host. But that is what happened on Tuesday in South Africa when Zimbabwe’s First Lady, Grace Mugabe, 52, lost her temper and took the law into her hands, assaulting a 20-year-old model and nightclub hostess, Gabriella Engels, at the Capital 20 West Hotel, in the upmarket Johannesburg district of Sandron. She attacked the girl without telling her the offense committed; certainly, Gabriella was a victim of transferred aggression.
Police opened a case of assault against Mrs. Mugabe after Gabriella reported that (Mugabe) hit her over the head with an extension cord. Engels appeared in a press conference on Thursday with a large plaster on her forehead. Interestingly, hours after Engels cried out, Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party tried to contradict her with a tweet saying Mrs. Mugabe was attacked in South Africa. This turned out to be a ploy to mislead Zimbabweans who were already fed up with the excesses of the First Lady. The party may have recognised that Mugabe’s action could further dent its public image and that of the presidency
This is not the first time she would be attacking people while on foreign trips. In 2009, she allegedly smashed her jewel-encrusted fist into the face of a British press photographer who had approached her outside a hotel in Hong Kong. She escaped prosecution under the cover of diplomatic immunity. Like it was in Hong Kong, she has again escaped prosecution after the South African government granted her diplomatic immunity following an application filed by the Zimbabwean government through its High Commission in Pretoria, in the face of public outcry over her misdemeanour. She returned to Harare at the weekend to the dismay of South Africans, particularly rights groups, and her victim.
Plans to charge Mugabe bungled
At the heat of the crisis last week, the South African police assured Engels, her lawyers and the general public that Mugabe would be prosecuted. The police even issued a ‘red alert’ to stop her from leaving the country until the matter was resolved.
“The SAPS (South Africa Police Service) have already put tabs in the borders in relation to her (Mugabe) leaving the country so there is no question about that. The red alert has been put,” Police Minister Fikile Mbalula told reporters. Earlier, Mbalula had confirmed to the press that charges had been laid against Mugabe on Tuesday. He was, however, quick to say she was not arrested because she had cooperated with police.
Hours after Mbalula spoke, a police spokesman reportedly said no arrest warrant had been prepared and they would wait for a decision about Mugabe’s application for diplomatic immunity before any decision or further action would be taken. But as time dragged on, it became clear that the government was in a dilemma as it would not want to strain its ties with Zimbabwe. This explains the conflicting statements the police and the Department for International Relations and Cooperation were issuing.
Yesterday, Engels’ optimism that the government would prosecute Mugabe was dashed when Mugabe departed the country in company of her husband, President Robert Mugabe. Mrs. Mugabe was granted diplomatic immunity, published in the Government Gazette: “I hereby recognise the immunities and privileges of the First Lady of the Republic of Zimbabwe, Dr. Grace Mugabe,” the International Relations Minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said in the notice made public yesterday.
Zuma faces public condemnation
Mrs. Mugabe has, however, stirred the hornet’s nest as the Zuma administration now faces an avalanche of condemnations for succumbing to pressure from Zimbabwe’s government to allow her leave the country without appearing in court on charges of allegedly committing a crime in South Africa. She entered the country in her private capacity, without a diplomatic passport. She was in the country to treat a leg injury, ahead of a South African Development Community (SADC) summit of heads of state, which was also attended by the region’s First Ladies at the weekend.
Expectedly, Mrs. Mugabe stayed away from the meeting for reasons of the uproar her action had caused.
The fact that she had no immunity gave Engel’s lawyers the confidence that charges would be brought against her. Indeed, the police had said that she would be prosecuted. The incident has occurred barely a week after President Jacob Zuma escaped a no-confidence vote championed by the opposition and a faction of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Now, the opposition is challenging the decision of the government. The Democratic Alliance (DA) reacted swiftly yesterday, berating the ministers of police, international relations and defence for allowing Mugabe to escape prosecution.
“The DA will be demanding an immediate parliamentary inquiry into the government’s complicity in allowing Zimbabwean First Lady Grace Mugabe to flee the country in the dead of night to avoid criminal prosecution,” spokesperson, John Steenhuisen, said in a statement.
In 2015, the Zuma administration received flak from the opposition, the Supreme Court and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague after it failed to detain Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on the orders of the ICC. Al-Bashir is wanted for crimes against humanity.
What’s the offense of Gabriella?
It is difficult to say what offence Engels committed as Mugabe has not make public her reason for the attack. The only account of what transpired between both women is that of the victim. The British Broadcasting Corporation quoted Engels as saying she and four other people, two of whom were sons of Mugabe, were “having predrinks” on Sunday night in a hotel room. At the time of the incident, she had gone to another room when Mugabe walked in looking for her sons.
“She (Mrs. Mugabe) had a black extension cord in her hand. She cornered me and started beating the hell out of me. I had to roll myself down to get away from her, that’s when she hit me with the plug and the extension cord. And I just remember being curled down on the floor with blood rushing down my face and down my neck.
“I was just thinking, I have to get out of this hotel room now before this woman kills me. The only people that were in the room with us were her bodyguards and they were standing back while she was beating us.
“We were begging her to stop hitting us, but she didn’t want to, she just … She hit us with so much hate. Like, I don’t understand why she attacked us like that. Till this day, my friends and I don’t understand why this woman attacked us the way she did for no reason at all.”
Engels said she did not know the attacker was Zimbabwe’s First Lady and the mother of the friends she was visiting, adding that it was a security guard that helped her to escape from the room.
Gabriella’s decision to seek redress
She explained her decision to take Mugabe to court. Her words: “Before I even knew who she was I knew I had to lay an assault charge because I was injured so badly. I didn’t care who the person was. And when I found out who she was, I didn’t want to go lay a charge against her . . . but my mother pushed me to go lay the charge, because she told me, ‘What this woman did was not right. We can’t allow her to get away with it.’ She said she wants Mugabe to go to jail.
“I would be very happy if she could go to jail, that’s my main focus right now.”
Engels’ mother, Debbie, had appealed to the South African government not to grant Mugabe diplomatic immunity, according to privately-owned eNCA news site. She was quoted as saying she told her daughter that even if the assault case failed in court, she “should be proud of herself for speaking out, no matter what people are going to say about her because there would be people who will thrash her.”
Money offered to bury the matter
Mrs Mugabe may have forgotten that she is only First Lady in Zimbabwe where her words and actions are absolute. In Hong Kong, she departed the country without a show of remorse, not even an apology to the press photographer. But it was different this time, in South Africa. When it became obvious that South Africans would not condone her behaviour and were calling for her head, desperate moves were made to silence her victim through the offer of money. South African media said the money was offered to Engels by a third party. But determined to bring Mugabe to face the law, Engels and her mother rejected the offer. They had asked the model to accept the money and drop the case. No amount was mentioned.
Gabriella’s lawyers vow to fight on
Though Mugabe has arrived home, the ‘offensive dust’ she kicked up in Johannesburg continues to blow across the country. And lawyers to Engels have refused to give up. They have vowed to challenge the immunity granted Mugabe in court. Willie Spies said that they would argue that the First Lady should not have been given special treatment as she had been in South Africa on private business.
Lifestyle of Mugabe’s children
The two children of the First Lady that Engels visited have been described as very extravagant. Robert (Jr) and Chatunga Bellamine were reportedly evicted from a luxury apartment block at The Regent hotel in Johannesburg’s affluent Sandton area because of their “unacceptable behaviour,” News24 reported.
“The boys were usually up during the night partying with different ladies, drinking and smoking,” an unnamed resident was quoted as saying. According to the report, “there were almost daily complaints by other tenants about the noise coming from apartment 601 (the Mugabes’ apartment).”
News24 quoted Independent newspaper of Zimbabwe as saying that “things came to a head last month after a violent brawl in the complex’s entrance area left a member of the boys’ security team seriously injured,” as the fight involved a dispute over women. They relocated from Harare and Dubai earlier this year, according to reports.
The children have been reportedly described as dropouts in their previous institutions of learning in Dubai and Harare. This may explain the frustration of their mother. But who is to blame, Gabriella or the First Lady?