The madness of Queen Grace

Grace Mugabe, wife of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and a possible successor to his throne presidency, has been accused of assaulting a woman in an apartment in Johannesburg.

She is due to be formally charged in connection with the incident on Tuesday in the Randburg Magistrate’s Court.

Zimbabweans, all too familiar with their first lady’s erratic behaviour, are not surprised by the new allegations.

The incident is alleged to have occurred on Sunday evening, at a flat in upmarket Sandton. The flat is occupied by the first family’s two sons, Robert and Chatunga; they were kicked out of their last apartment, another luxury Sandton pad costing R70 000 a month, for bad behaviour.

According to the alleged victim, 20-year-old model Gabriella Engels, Grace Mugabe was furious that her sons had invited her back to the apartment, and attacked her with an extension cord. Mugabe’s bodyguards watched on and did not intervene.

“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,” said Engels, in an interview with News24.

South African police minister Fikile Mbalula has promised to investigate the incident, and said that Mugabe’s diplomatic passport will not prevent her from being arrested if necessary.

The Zimbabwean High Commission in South Africa has yet to respond to a request for comment.

Grace Mugabe’s reputation precedes her. As the Guardian’s David Smith wrote, in a long profile: “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 rumours that she has been unfaithful to the president and defends herself against accusations that she is pampered and lazy.”

The recent incident in Johannesburg is not the first time that Mugabe has been implicated in violent behaviour in foreign countries. In 2009, British photographer Richard Jones accused her of assaulting him outside a hotel in Hong Kong. According to Jones, Mugabe’s bodyguards chased him down and attempted to take his camera. They then pinned his arms down while Mugabe punched him repeatedly in the face.

More recently, earlier this month, Mugabe was allegedly detained briefly in Singapore after attempting to destroy camera equipment belonging to two journalists. Mugabe had accompanied her husband to the Gleneagles Hospital in Singapore where he was being treated for an undisclosed medical condition.

In both previous incidents, Grace Mugabe’s diplomatic immunity protected her from further investigation or criminal charges.

It’s not just outside Zimbabwe that the first lady has a track record of behaving badly – although her status means it can be dangerous for people to speak against her.

In March, for example, a Dubai-based businessman accused her of abusing her status as first lady. In court papers, Ahmed Jamal said that she had ordered police – without a warrant – to confiscate his properties in Zimbabwe, after a dispute over the sale of a $1.35-million diamond ring.

Meanwhile, in May this year, Human Rights Watch reported that police, allegedly acting on the orders of Grace Mugabe, harassed, assaulted and evicted some 200 families living on a farm owned by the first family in Mazowe.

“Witnesses at Arnolds Farm [said] that anti-riot police, who claimed to be acting on behalf of First Lady Grace Mugabe, on several occasions ordered residents to leave the farm, demolished homes, destroyed property, and beat up those who resisted. The police would put a rope around each house, tie it to a truck, and then drive the truck to pull the house down,” said Human Rights Watch.

Grace Mugabe is a leading candidate to succeed the aging, ailing president as both leader of the ruling party and head of state in Zimbabwe. What might this scandal-prone first lady do with even more power at her disposal?

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison, The Continent
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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