Why And How Did Wife Of Zimbabwe President Mugabe Receive Diplomatic Immunity?

Grace Mugabe, the wife of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, returned to her home country on Sunday. This was after being allowed to leave by the South African government. It was also despite the fact that she had been accused of assaulting a young model while in South Africa.

Mrs. Mugabe was accused last week of assaulting 20-year-old model, Gabriella Engels, with an extension cord. She had accused Engels of “living with her sons,” Robert and Chatunga, as reported by News24.

According to Engels, on August 12, she was visiting the Mugabe sons at the Capital 20 West Hotel. She had met the men “through a mutual friend.” Engels said that Mrs. Mugabe “walked in with an extension cord and just started beating me with it.”

On August 17, a “red alert” was issued by South African police to “prevent Zimbabwe first lady Grace Mugabe from leaving South Africa before she settles the accusation that she assaulted the young model, as reported by Fox News. At that point, the borders were essentially closed to Mugabe, preventing her departure back to her home country. But, it also may have given South African authorities additional time to consider a diplomatic immunity request that had been delivered from Mrs. Mugabe.

What may be controversial diplomatic immunity granted to Grace Mugabe
On what could be a challenged decision by South African authorities, Grace Mugabe was allowed to return home without answering charges from Ms. Engels. [Image by Themba Hadebe/AP Images]

After issuance of the red alert, Mugabe stayed out the public view, remaining out of sight. That may have been to give time for the South African government to decide on a request for immunity. Part of the issue appears to have been “whether the wife of 93-year-old [Zimbabwe] President Robert Mugabe entered South Africa on a personal or diplomatic passport,” as stated by Fox News. If a personal passport was used, giving diplomatic immunity may have been more problematic for the South African government and Mrs. Mugabe. However, hurdles must have been cleared as Mrs. Mugabe re-entered Zimbabwe on Sunday.

Mrs. Mugabe had recently expressed concern about her two sons, Robert and Chatunga. They have apparently “become wild and taken to beer binges and drugs,” according to News24. In fact, they were recently evicted from a luxury apartment they were renting due to “unacceptable behavior.” The run-in with Ms. Engels may have been the result of those concerns.

Robert and Chatunga Mugabe have been problematic to their mother in recent days.
Zimbabwe First Lady Grace Mugabe recently traveled to South Africa, reportedly to address issues with her two sons, Robert and Chatunga. [Image by Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP Images]

In the end, Mrs. Mugabe was granted diplomatic immunity since it was reportedly “in the interests of South Africa” to recognize Mugabe’s “immunities and privileges,” the New York Times reported. However, ultimately, this may not be good enough. After hearing the news of Mrs. Mugabe’s return to Zimbabwe, a group representing Engels indicated that it would be challenging the immunity issue. This may be in part because it was originally reported that Mrs. Mugabe had entered South Africa to receive treatment for a foot injury and not for diplomatic reasons. Also, this trip (and another trip in July) may have been to address issues arising from the behavior of her sons.

Generally speaking, when a passport is issued for diplomatic purposes, it can be used for travel only in the discharge of official diplomatic duties. If travel is for personal purposes then a personal passport must be used. For this reason, it is possible for an individual to have more than one passport. It is presumed that since the South African government granted diplomatic immunity, that it was determined that Grace Mugabe was in the country for reasons connected to her official business for Zimbabwe.

Any challenge to the immunity granted might look into at least two matters. One would be what passport Mrs. Mugabe used when she entered South Africa. The second matter would be to look at what her activities actually consisted of while she was in the country. Those two items could have great bearing on whether the granted immunity holds long-term. If it does not hold, then Mrs. Mugabe could lose an important protection in this matter.

Grace Mugabe recently announced that she would like to follow in her husband’s footsteps as president of Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe, who has been in power for three decades, is 93-years-old. He, however, has not publicly spoken about his wife’s ambitions. He has indicated that the topic of naming his successor is “taboo,” as explained by Fox News. This latest incident with Mrs. Mugabe in South Africa may make her goal of the Zimbabwe presidency more difficult.

[Featured image by Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP Images]