After reportedly turning herself in to South African police on Tuesday over allegations that she assaulted a 20-year-old woman who was partying with her two sons, Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe’s whereabouts are currently unknown, and local reports indicate that she may have returned to her country despite officials in Johannesburg stating otherwise.
It had been unclear whether the wife of Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old president was traveling in South Africa on a diplomatic passport and, therefore, had legal immunity. She was in the country for medical purposes. A Zimbabwean intelligence source told Reuters that Mugabe had been traveling on an ordinary nondiplomatic passport.
Fikile Mbalula, South Africa’s police minister, had said that charges would be brought against her and that she was being cooperative. In 2009, a photographer in Hong Kong said Mugabe and her bodyguard had assaulted him, but no charges were brought because the Zimbabwean first lady was able to claim diplomatic immunity.
The young woman accusing Mugabe of assault on Sunday night is Gabriella Engels, who works as a model. She was reportedly visiting with Mugabe’s two sons, Robert Jr. and Chatunga, at a hotel in an upscale neighborhood of Johannesburg called Sandton. Speaking to News24, Engels said Mugabe suddenly burst into the room.
“When Grace entered, I had no idea who she was. She walked in with an extension cord and just started beating me with it,” Engels said.
“She flipped and just kept beating me with the plug. Over and over. I had no idea what was going on. I was surprised. … I needed to crawl out of the room before I could run away.”
Engels posted a picture of an injury to her head on Twitter, later adding that it could impair her modeling career.
I have to more injuries at the back of my head pic.twitter.com/fz3olUz9tN
— Gah-bee (@DaNamesGaby) August 14, 2017
The Mugabes’ party, ZANU-PF, claimed it was actually Engels who perpetrated the assault, tweeting an earlier picture of the model.
We can confirm if this is one of the perpetrators who attacked comrade Grace Mugabe. Be careful comrades. pic.twitter.com/3VCyfsY8vB
— ZANU PF (@zanu_pf) August 14, 2017
Mugabe’s sons are enrolled at the University of Johannesburg. They have been evicted from apartments in both Johannesburg and Dubai for rowdy behavior, and tabloids have widely covered their partying habits.
Mugabe’s reputation precedes her, too. In a profile of her written for the Guardian, David Smith said: “Few women in Africa provoke such fascination, or such loathing, as Grace Mugabe. Loyalists describe her as ‘Amai’ (Mother), ‘The Lady of the Revelation’ or, predictably, ‘Amazing Grace’, while detractors prefer ‘DisGrace’, ‘Gucci Grace’ or ‘First Shopper’. There are reports that the couple have substantial foreign properties and multiple offshore bank accounts, Grace’s overseas shopping expeditions are legendary: she was widely reported to have spent £75,000 on luxury goods in one day in Paris in 2003, and to have taken 15 trolley-loads of purchases into the first-class lounge of Singapore airport. She has been forced to deny rumors that she has been unfaithful to the president and defends herself against accusations that she is pampered and lazy.”
Just weeks ago, Mugabe was reportedly detained in Singapore after attempting to destroy camera equipment belonging to two journalists. But diplomatic immunity absolved her in that case, too.
Mugabe is openly vying to become her doddering husband’s successor. Robert Mugabe presides over one of the world’s poorest and most unequal countries. Zimbabwe’s currency recently collapsed, and the country is suffering from prolonged drought. Nevertheless, its government announced plans last week for a $1 billion university to be built in Robert Mugabe’s name. Health care is so ineffectual in Zimbabwe that members of ZANU-PF regularly travel abroad for treatment. Political dissidents often are jailed or simply disappear.