Three NGOs have joined the legal battle to set aside the diplomatic immunity given to former Zimbabwe first lady Grace Mugabe after assault charges. Picture: Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

Three NGO’s have joined the legal battle by model Gabriella Engels, assisted by AfriForum and the Democratic Alliance for the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, to review and set aside the diplomatic immunity afforded to former Zimbabwe first lady Grace Mugabe following assault charges brought against her by Engels.

Freedom Under Law, the Women’s Legal Centre Trust and the Commission for Gender Equality were admitted as friends of the court to intervene in the application. They have until February 21 next year to file their heads of argument.

The application followed an incident on August 13 this year, when Engels was allegedly assaulted by Mugabe at a hotel in Sandton. 

The 20-year-old model claimed Mugabe had burst into the Sandton hotel room where she was  at the time and that she was hit on the forehead by Mugabe with an electric cord with a plug at the end. 

Engels suffered gashes to her forehead and the back of her head. 

She had laid criminal charges against Mugabe, but the first lady never appeared in court as she had been granted diplomatic immunity by Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.

The minister, in papers filed, said she afforded Mugabe “spousal immunity” at the time. According to Nkoana-Mashabane she had to afford Mugabe immunity as the SADC summit was in progress and any enforcement action against the head of State attending the summit, would cause chaos. 

She stated that if Mugabe was arrested for the alleged assault, it could have even caused  the collapse of the summit and impact very negatively on the reputation and international standing of South Africa.

“A failed summit would not be in the interests of the country,” the minister said. 

The minister said Mugabe at the time travelled to South Africa as part of the official delegation of then President Robert Mugabe, enroute to the summit.

She said she had fully considered the question of immunity and decided to confer immunity on Mugabe in terms of the Diplomatic Immunities and Privileges Act.

The minister stated that it is not in issue that Mugabe was not a special envoy or representative in terms of the Act, and that she was not a diplomatic agent. But given the fact that she was the wife of then President Mugabe, she enjoyed spousal immunity. 

She said she fully considered Engels’ interests at the time, but concluded that she had no option but to recognise Mugabe’s immunity. 

James Selfe of the DA, in his papers filed to have the minister’s decision overturned, said Mugabe was not in South Africa on official business and she was apparently here for medical reasons and not accompanied by her husband.

“There is nothing in either South African or International law that renders her deserving of diplomatic immunity,”  he said.

He said the decision to grant her immunity was taken hastily, unreasonably and without consulting Engels, the alleged victim. 

“Grace Mugabe’s attack on Ms Engels was vicious and unjustified. It was the act of a person who has come to believe that she is above the law,” Selfe stated.

Nicole Fritz of FUL meanwhile said in court papers that nothing under international law required South Africa to grant Mugabe immunity from criminal investigation and prosecution. 

She said the minister’s decision was flawed and it should be declared unconstitutional on grounds of irrationality and unlawfulness. 

No date has yet been set for the review application.

Pretoria News