South Africa plans to grant immunity to Grace Mugabe, sources say

Jamie Grierson and agencies
South African rights campaigners say it would be a disgrace to grant diplomatic immunity to Grace Mugabe. Photograph: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

South Africa plans to grant diplomatic immunity to Zimbabwe’s first lady, Grace Mugabe, after she was accused of assaulting a model at a hotel in Johannesburg, government sources have said.

Mugabe is accused of attacking Gabriella Engels, 20, with an electrical extension cord after Engels went to see the Mugabes’ sons Robert and Chatunga at the Capital 20 West hotel in Johannesburg’s upmarket Sandton district.

South African police have put border posts on “red alert” to prevent Mugabe fleeing and said she would not receive special treatment, but a source in Pretoria, the country’s administrative capital, told Reuters there was no way the 52-year-old would be arrested.

The source said the government was anxious to avoid the diplomatic fallout of an arrest that would ensue from Zimbabwe, which has been led for nearly four decades by Robert Mugabe, the 93-year-old president.

Other countries in southern Africa that supported South Africa’s ruling ANC in the long struggle against apartheid would also see Grace Mugabe’s prosecution as a betrayal, the source said.

“There would obviously be implications for our relations with Zimbabwe. Sadly the other countries in the region are watching us and how we are going to act,” the source said. “What is likely to happen is that she will be allowed to go back home, and then we announce that we’ve granted diplomatic immunity and wait for somebody to challenge us.”

South Africa’s foreign ministry spokesman declined to comment when contacted by Reuters. The country is home to an estimated 3 million Zimbabweans, but it has been powerless to prevent Zimbabwe’s economic and political decline over the last two decades.

It is expected that a grant of diplomatic immunity would be challenged in court. It is not clear whether Mugabe entered South Africa on a personal or diplomatic passport.

Afriforum, a South African rights group, which is advising Engels, said it would be a disgrace to grant diplomatic immunity, which would allow Mugabe to return to Harare. “The government has two responsibilities: one, to protect its own citizens; and two, to act according to the law. And the granting of diplomatic immunity would transgress the law,” the chief executive of Afriforum, Kallie Kriel, said.

Pictures posted on social media appeared to show a cut to Engels’s forehead and she claimed to have more injuries on the back of her head. Engels has said she “did not lift a finger on the first lady”.

“We were chilling in a hotel room, and [the sons] were in the room next door. She came in and started hitting us. She flipped and just kept beating me with the plug, over and over,” Engels told local media.

Gabriella Engels at a media conference in Pretoria on Thursday. Photograph: Themba Hadebe/AP

The South African model said she had no clue who her attacker was until the alleged assault was over. She had “no idea what was going on … I was surprised. I had to crawl out of the room before I could run away,” she said.

Accusing the first lady’s bodyguards of standing by and watching during the alleged assault, Engels said: “The front of my forehead is busted open. I’m a model and I make my money based on my looks.”

Harare has made no official comment on the incident and requests for comment from Zimbabwean government officials have gone unanswered. The South African government has restricted all official comment to the police ministry.

Mugabe regularly speaks at political rallies and is seen as a possible contender to take over from her increasingly frail husband, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from British colonial rule in 1980.

The Engels incident is not the first time Mugabe – who is lauded in official Zimbabwean media as “mother of the nation” – has been in legal hot water. In 2009, a newspaper photographer in Hong Kong said Mugabe and her bodyguard had assaulted him. Police said the incident was reported but no charges were brought.