Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Zimbabwe first lady in hot water

Accused of assault in Johannesburg, Grace Mugabe was afforded diplomatic immunity by South Africa, a move questioned by some, writes Haitham Nouri


Zimbabwe first lady in hot water
Zimbabwe first lady in hot water

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Zimbabwe’s First Lady sparked controversy again after a fashion model accused her of assaulting her in a hotel in Johannesburg. South Africa subsequently granted diplomatic immunity to the First Lady.

Grace Mugabe (52), wife of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, returned to Harare in the early hours of Sunday morning in the company of her husband who had been attending the South African Development Community (SADC) Summit, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) reported.

The government of Zimbabwe and Grace Mugabe’s lawyer had requested immunity for the Zimbabwean president’s wife, which Pretoria granted in spite of the demonstrations in which protesters shouted “Shame on Grace!”

Some observers have likened the immunity granted to Mrs Mugabe by the government of President Jacob Zuma to Pretoria’s failure to arrest Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and turn him over to the International Criminal Court. Last year the ICC ruled that South Africa had violated its agreement with the court by failing to arrest the Sudanese president while in South Africa to attend the African summit in 2015.

The ICC issued an international warrant for Al-Bashir who is wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the civil war in Darfur.

Newspapers close to the ruling party in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC), maintain that the two cases are entirely different even if the two persons in question (Grace Mugabe and Omar Al-Bashir) share the common denominator of diplomatic immunity.

The Times of South Africa cited the model, Gabriella Engels (20), who related that Grace Mugabe had come to the hotel where she was staying, looking for the Zimbabwean president’s two sons, Robert Junior and Chatunga Bellarmine. “We were chilling in a hotel room‚ and they were in the room next door‚” Engels said. She went on to describe how Mrs Mugabe burst into the room and started to hit her with an extension cord. “I’m a model and I make my money based on my looks‚” she added.

Engels maintains that she did not realise, at first, that it was the Zimbabwean First Lady who “attacked” her and she denies having struck back. She posted photos on her Twitter account of the wounds on her forehead that she claimed she had received during the assault.

The South African police stated that Engels had filed a complaint against Grace Mugabe accusing her of deliberately inflicting physical harm. The statement also noted that the lawyers of the accused had requested diplomatic immunity on the grounds that she had been accompanying her husband who attended the SADC Summit.

According to AFP, Grace Mugabe has not appeared in public in South Africa and in Zimbabwe since the incident that occurred 13 August. The Zimbabwean First Lady is mooted as the person most likely to succeed her 92-year-old husband who has been ruling the country since independence in 1980.

In a speech to the Zanu-PF’s Women’s League, which she heads, Grace Mugabe said that she had spoken to her husband about the need for him to appoint a successor as soon as possible. Some months previously, speaking at a Zanu-PF convention, she said that Mugabe was indispensable and would rule the country from his grave.

The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) Party is torn by conflict between two rival factions, one led by Grace Mugabe and the other by Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Ibrahim Nasreddin, professor of political science at Cairo University, believes that President Mugabe is afraid of losing part of his party if he names his wife successor. “True, she is the president’s wife, but there are other figures in the regime that could be much more influential than her. Naming her successor would unite those people against him and against her.”

The opposition, for its part, is working to unify ranks and name a single candidate to stand against Mugabe in the general elections next year. Robert Mugabe came in second in the first round of the 2008 elections after Morgan Tsvangirai who, however, lost in the runoffs. That same year, Mugabe’s party lost its parliamentary majority, compelling him to agree to a five-year long power-sharing agreement in accordance with which Tsvangirai served as prime minister until 2013.

Regardless of what his wife may say, Mugabe is not predictable. He decided to run again in 2013 in spite of the fact that most observers believed that his age at the time — 89 — would stand in the way. He defied that forecast.

Today, Mugabe, who seems in good health, is preparing for a tour of 10 different parts of the country in order to address his party’s supporters, setting into motion his campaign trail for the presidential elections scheduled for March 2018.

If he wins and completes the next term, he will be 99, scoring an African if not global precedent. He married Grace in 1996, four years after the death of his first wife, Sarah Francesca (Hayfron), known as Sally Mugabe, who came from Ghana. His relationship with Grace Marufu (the maiden name of his current wife) began in 1987 during Sally Mugabe’s illness. She bore him two sons: Bona in 1988 and Robert in 1990. Although his first wife had known of the affair, it remained a secret to Zimbabweans until he and Grace married in a huge Catholic ceremony.

Grace has been pursued by charges of corruption. There were widespread rumours in Harare that she had acquired property through illegal means and that she exploited her husband’s influence to obtain commercial gains. But the public prosecutor’s office never launched investigations or filed charges against her.

She is also notorious for her love of luxury and profligacy, spending tens of thousands of dollars in a single shopping spree. According to the estiamtes of opposition sources, her personal expenses come to millions of dollars a year.

Zimbabwe has been under Western sanctions since 2000, which was when Mugabe allowed a militia group made up of veterans from the war of liberation to seize possession of white owned farms that had been the backbone of the national economy.

According to Professor Nasreddin of the Institute for African Studies at Cairo University, the US and the UK signed an agreement with Zimbabwe whereby Washington and London would purchase the white-owned farms on behalf of the majority African population of the country. However, he said, the US and UK did not honour the agreement.

Mugabe’s action caused the collapse of agricultural production and turned Zimbabwe from a southern African breadbasket to an importer of essential foodstuffs. In the years that followed the seizure of the farms, inflation soared to 200 per cent.

Economic straits combined with rising educational levels (Zimbabwe has the lowest rate of illiteracy in Africa at 10 per cent) and the growing demographic weight of youth would naturally lead to mounting protests against the Mugabe regime. A commonly told joke has it that Mugabe the teacher (his profession until he went into politics in 1960) has besieged Mugabe the dictator through the spread of education.

Although under pressure from the West, Zimbabwe enjoys good relations with China, which is carrying out a number of economic development projects in the country. The relationship with Beijing dates back decades to the time when Mugabe led the guerrilla war against the ruling white minority.

Mugabe has also been trying to strengthen relations with India and Russia in order to alleviate the economic crisis. But international relations aside, Zimbabwe will need to assimilate millions of young people into a productive economy in order to convince them to change their mind about the current regime.

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