Grace under pressure

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

What does it feel like one wonders, to be the lapdog, the chihuhua of His Excellency, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, President of the Republic of Zimbabwe?

You’d have to ask His Excellency, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, President of the Republic of South Africa, because if anybody knows what it feels like to sit on the lap of the most revered of African heads of state, it is he.

Despite a number of public utterances by police minister Fikile “The Sheriff” Mbalula, that Grace Mugabe was variously appearing in court, co-operating in the investigation, still in the country, would face the might of the law, she left the country on Sunday morning, after international relations and co-operation minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane retroactively granted her diplomatic immunity.

Gabrielle Engels, the South African woman allegedly savagely beaten with an electrical extension cord in a Sandton hotel room last Sunday by Zimbabwe’s First Lady, has been catastrophically let down by her own government.

Clearly, as noted by a Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO) spokesperson on Monday morning in reaction to the public outrage at the minister’s decision, it is more important to maintain good diplomatic relations with a neighbouring country, than it is to seek justice for one of our citizens.

But it’s not as if this country has anything of substance to offer South Africa in return for this generous accomodation. After all, such diplomatic horsetrading inevitably has a susbstantive goal, like increased bi-lateral trade, or investment opportunities.

But what are the chances of that, from a country which has been driven from being the bread basket of southern Africa, to an economic basket case, by the man who has ruled by fiat since Zimbabwe’s first democratic election 37 years ago?

This is the country which, a few years ago, abandoned its national currency in favour of the much-hated American Dollar in a fatuous attempt to curtail the hyperinflation that has made Zimbabwe and its Dollar an international laughing stock.

South Africa supplies power to Zimbabwe and hosts one of the largest diaspora cohorts of Zimbaweans who have fled the borders of Mr Mugabe’s quasi-Socialist paradise, in search of the economic opportunities which they have been consistently denied at home.

Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans work in South Africa, and many of them no doubt remit funds to their families back home, providing a much needed boost to a moribund economy.

Clearly, Zimbabwe has nothing to offer South Africa in return for letting Grace Mugabe off the hook and abandoning Ms Engels, which suggests that the accord stems from struggle solidarity between two old soldiers, neither of whom have lived up to the expectiations which they created.

The thing that is most galling, is that Ms Mugabe is now free to return to South Africa when she next feels the urge to spend profligately, while Zimbabweans continue to live in penury, facing massive unemployment – 95% – and an ever-shrinking economy.

But all is not lost, because we still have an independent and robust judiciary, and we also have an opposition which is adept at conducting “lawfare” – the practice of using the courts to compel the executive to act in accordance with the constitution and to obey the law.

The Diplomatic Immunities and Privilges Act (Act 37 of 2001) is quite clear on the matter.

Diplomatic immunity cannot be granted retroactively. It can only be granted before the individual enters the country, and a notice must be published in the Government Gazette to that effect.

Ms Mugabe arrived in South Africa as a private citizen, apparently seeking medical treatment and shopping opportunties – it is rumoured that she bought a property in Sandton valued at R45 million.

She was not entitled to claim diplomatic immunity post-facto, after Gabrielle Engels laid a charge of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm.

So here’s how it will play out. The DA’s request for a Parliamentary probe into the matter will come to pass, and the matter will be debated in the National Assembly. Goverment will rermain recalcitrant.

The opposition will approach the courts, and Ms Nkoana-Mashabane’s post-facto faux pas will be set aside.

Government will appeal the judgment, and if leave to appeal is granted – unlikely – the court a quo’s judgment will in all likelihood be upheld.

Government will petition the Constitutional Court for leave to appeal, which if it is granted – unlikely – will also probably uphold the original judgment, and Ms Mugabe will be stripped of diplomatic immunity.

And this is when the silverlining to this dark cloud will be revealed. Gerrie Nel, fiercely keen to test the limits and latitudes of private prosecution in his new billet at Afriforum will do what the National Prosecuting Authority ought to have done – seek justice for Gabrielle Engels, and if he gets that right, there are no prizes for guessing who will next find himself in Mr Nel’s crosshairs.