Grace and Jacob dance the shuffle of shame

William Saunderson-Meyer on the controversy around the granting of diplomatic immunity to Zimbabwe's first lady


It is entirely understandable that the South African government would want to spare Zimbabwe’s Grace Mugabe a possible criminal conviction for an alleged assault on a young woman. 

Not only are there strong emotions at play, but political pragmatism, too, would make diplomatic immunity an attractive, quick solution to an ugly, messy problem.

After all, Grace is the wife of an important African leader, a man whom many admire because of his anti-colonial rhetoric and the risks he took in support of SA’s liberation struggle. Another factor on the emotional side of the equation, is the fact that Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Zuma’s African National Congress have moved ideologically closer to one another.

There are also some sound realpolitik arguments to be made for immunity. With Robert Mugabe sliding into dotage, Grace is not only already the de facto power behind the throne, but she is also very likely to be his successor. The two countries share an extensive, porous, border, with millions of Zimbabweans seeking political and economic shelter in SA.

Unfortunately for the Zuma administration, the downsides stack up badly. However seductive the option, to grant Grace diplomatic immunity – especially in such a hasty, kneejerk fashion – has some reputational costs abroad and constitutional implications at home.

Our international reputation, in fact, will be little affected. A minor physical assault by the Harare harridan is neither unheard of – she has been known to visit violence upon hapless Zimbabweans in the past – nor unexpected, given her volatile combination of overweening arrogance and low self control.

In any case, the days when SA had a commanding international moral stature are gone. The Johannesburg incident will merely confirm the prevailing view, among friends and foes alike, that SA’s political decisions are entirely mercenary, driven by immediate events and short-term horizons, and accompanied by a scary indifference to the law and judicial processes.

This is why SA spinelessly, at China’s behest, pettily denied the Dalai Lama a visa to attend Desmond Tutu’s birthday. This is why we ignored a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court of which SA was a founding member – and in defiance of a ruling of our own High Court – for the arrest of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s genocidal despot.

But although our fading reputation is no barrier to immunity, the constitution is. As Police Minister Fikile Mbalula, always too garrulous for his own good, said, the cops had not arrested Mugabe only because of her status. “If it was somebody else … we could have long moved a raid on her in terms of the issues.”

Although it is now claimed that she was part of the Zimbabwean delegation attending the SA Development Community summit, Grace actually entered the country more than a week earlier, reportedly for medical treatment and to visit her playboy sons. In any case, in terms of the Diplomatic Immunities and Privileges Act, not even a head of state can escape the jurisdiction of SA’s courts when criminal injury is involved – which was apparently also the advice of the state’s legal advisers to the Department of International Affairs and Co-operation.

The legality of the diplomatic immunity granted to Grace Mugabe will eventually be ruled upon by the courts. Afriforum’s attack beast, Advocate Gerrie “Bulldog” Nel, intends to challenge the decision and institute a private prosecution against her. 

It is unlikely that she would attend such a hearing. After all, seeking justice is for the little people; the big operators can simply choose not to play. 

However challenging the situation facing the SA government, it is easy to imagine how it could have been handled better. There are ways for Zuma to achieve his political goal of placating the Zimbabweans and respecting legislative strictures.

Perhaps most elegantly, it could have allowed court proceedings to proceed and, if Grace were found guilty, Zuma could at that stage have granted her a presidential pardon against criminal sanctions, but not against civil damages. Justice would, at least symbolically, have been served.

But, none of the African National Congress government’s actions has anything to do with the scrupulously evenhanded processes of the law. They have been about sparing Grace Mugabe embarrassment and potential humiliation, and about indicating to her and her murderous consort, that they can depend on the SA government always to place loyalty above irksome constitutional obligations. 

There is a telling illustration of this brazen, shameless approach, on the part of our president. One would have thought that while the alleged assault and its legal ramifications were the focus of heated public and media discussion, Zuma would at least keep a dignified distance from the controversial Mrs Mugabe. 

Instead, on Tuesday night, he and Grace were videoed, without a care in the world, happily jiving together at a SADC party. 

Zuma is a disgrace to his country, as is Grace Mugabe to hers. And unfortunately for their nations, both are oblivious as to why that is so.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye