South African woman challenges Grace Mugabe’s immunity over assault claim

Gabriella Engels claims she was assaulted by Zimbabwe’s first lady in Johannesburg earlier this month

Gabriella Engels looks on during a media conference in Pretoria, South Africa.
Gabriella Engels looks on during a media conference in Pretoria, South Africa. Photograph: Themba Hadebe/AP

Mugabe is accused of attacking 20-year-old Gabriella Engels after the model went to see the Mugabes’ sons, Robert and Chatunga, at the Capital 20 West hotel in Johannesburg’s upmarket Sandton district earlier this month.

Police had initially placed border posts on “red alert” to prevent Mugabe from leaving the country when the incident came to light. But South Africa’s international relations minister later said she had granted diplomatic immunity to the wife of Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old president, Robert Mugabe.

Afriforum has given legal backing to Engels, and is working on the case with Gerrie Nel, the prosecutor who famously secured a murder conviction against Olympic and Paralympic star Oscar Pistorius.

“We want to set aside the granting of diplomatic immunity to Grace Mugabe,” said Afriforum’s chief executive, Kallie Kriel, adding that it could take months before the case is heard in court and that no date for the hearing had been set.

Grace Mugabe returned home from South Africa on Sunday, but her immunity was widely criticised in South Africa, where August has been designated Women’s Month to highlight concerns around gender violence and abuse.

State broadcaster ZBC showed Grace Mugabe greeting government and military officials at the airport in Harare on Sunday after returning on an Air Zimbabwe plane with her husband, who had attended a summit of southern African leaders in Pretoria.

South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, called for a parliamentary inquiry into the decision to let the Zimbabwean first lady leave, tweeting that the government had “no more legitimacy in the arena of international diplomacy and displays a total disregard for the rule of law”.

“We will take a long-term approach on this,” Willie Spies, the legal representative at AfriForum, said earlier this week. “She may be back in Zimbabwe, but it may mean that she will find it very difficult to come back to South Africa in the future.”

Afriforum is a lobby group that primarily represents South Africa’s white Afrikaner minority.

Harare has made no official comment on the issue and requests for comment from Zimbabwean government officials have gone unanswered.

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