Pretoria - The decision to grant Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's wife Grace diplomatic immunity following her alleged assault on a young South African woman "was not an easy one to make", the international relations and co-operation department said on Sunday.
Grace Mugabe is accused of assaulting 20-year-old Gabriella Engels with an extension cord in a flat in Sandton, Johannesburg last Sunday. Engels laid charges against Mugabe after she had her face stitched up in hospital.
On Wednesday, August 16, the Zimbabwean Embassy "invoked immunities" of Grace Mugabe in relation to the alleged assault case, the department said in a statement.
Minister Maite Nkoane-Mashabane had considered the communication from the embassy in accordance with the discretion granted to her by the Diplomatic Immunities and Privileges Act.
In terms of section 7 (2) of the act, "The Minister may in any particular case if it is not expedient to enter into an agreement as contemplated in subsection (1) and if the conferment of immunities and privileges is in the interest of the republic, confer such immunities and privileges on a person or organisation as may be specified by notice in the [Government] Gazette".
The department said all the relevant factors had been considered, including:
- the need to uphold the rule of law, ensure fair administration of justice, and uphold the rights of the complainant;
- the imperative to maintain good inter-governmental relations within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, and in particular between South Africa and Zimbabwe;
- the fact that the matter coincided with South Africa's hosting of the 37th SADC summit of heads of state and government; and
- legal considerations, including derivative immunity of spouses of heads of state.
After "careful consideration" of these factors the "minister has made the determination that the conferring of diplomatic immunity is warranted in this particular instance".
"The department wishes to convey the message that the minister has agonised over this matter and the decision was not an easy one to make," the department said.
Media reports earlier on Sunday stated Grace Mugabe had left South Africa in the early hours of Sunday morning along with her husband. Robert Mugabe was in South Africa to attend the SADC summit in Pretoria, but reportedly left before the summit concluded on Sunday.
It is believed that the president arranged immunity for his wife which was gazetted on Saturday.
Now Mugabe's diplomatic immunity which allowed her to return home without facing charges of assault will be challenged in court in South Africa.
The immunity, granted after she arrived in South Africa more then a week ago on private business was a political decision not a legal one said South African lawyer, Lorna Ferguson.
“It was irrational and in contravention of South African laws for her to be granted immunity in the face of what were serious criminal charges laid against her for alleged assault a week ago. I consulted the law and with a veteran South Africa foreign affairs expert who said that immunity cannot be granted retrospectively.”
Engels case has been taken up by a non-governmental organisation Afriforum which says it will go to court for the injured woman regarding the immunity, and will also charge Mrs Mugabe in both criminal and civil cases.
Democratic Alliance chief whip John Steenhuisen said in a statement on Sunday the DA would also demand an immediate parliamentary inquiry into government’s complicity in allowing Grace Mugabe “to flee the country in the dead of night to avoid criminal prosecution”.
The inquiry should call on the ministers of police, international relations and co-operation, and defence and military veterans to account for their failures, he said.
“It is simply inexplicable how this has happened again. It illustrates how unrepentant the ANC government is and, following its complicity in allowing Sudanese president Omar al Bashir to escape an international arrest warrant, shows that the ANC government will continue to do exactly what it wants to protect their dodgy friends.”
“This government has no more legitimacy in the arena of international diplomacy and displays a total disregard for the rule of law. Indeed, the ANC has turned South Africa into a playground for the political elite and their criminal associates to act with impunity.”
The DA in parliament would never allow this state of affairs to continue and would demand a thorough inquiry into this latest and predictable failure by the executive. The ANC was content to “sell South Africa to the highest bidder, but they must be reminded that parliament is neither captured nor for sale”, Steenhuisen said.
African News Agency and Independent Foreign Bureau