South Africa is in a recession. Its President, Jacob Zuma, recently survived a no-confidence vote and there is heightened media attention around government activity. In granting immunity to the Zimbabwean First Lady, Grace Mugabe despite the recent charges levelled against her, it may have avoided adverse economic consequences. It may also have prevented a diplomatic crisis between the two states.
On Sunday, August 20, Grace Mugabe was granted immunity after being charged with assaulting South African model, Gabriella Engels at a hotel in Johannesburg. Mrs. Mugabe was accused of beating Ms. Engels with an extension cord.
It needs to be pointed out that in spite of the injustice and potential controversy, granting immunity is arguably in the interest of the state. It is perhaps necessary for situational and long-term national stability. Perhaps South Africa had to grant her immunity.
Signs of diplomatic distress became obvious when on Saturday, August 19, all South African Airways flights between Harare and Johannesburg were cancelled after the Zimbabwean government demanded for foreign operators permit. The move is thought to be an overreaction to South Africa’s aviation authority’s decision to ground an Air Zimbabwe flight to Harare. The Democratic Alliance, a South African political party, claimed Zimbabwe’s decision was a “democratic impasse” over the charges against Grace Mugabe.
Furthermore, the volatility of South Africa’s current economy means that it must be careful not to make enemies of vital trade partners. South Africa exports $2 billion worth of goods to Zimbabwe and absorbs nearly 80 percent of its exports. Although the former is more prosperous, it depends significantly on trade relations with the latter. Besides, both states are members of the South African Community (SADC) Free Trade Area. Trade barriers in form embargoes and new tariffs may disable their ability to trade with other nations in the region.
They also share a similar history in enduring white minority rule and apartheid. Zimbabwe and other members of the Frontline States supported South Africa in its fight against apartheid. Although relations have been tense in recent years, the historical cordiality is relatively stable. Prosecuting and convicting such a prominent figure may strain relations to a nearly unrepairable degree.
Mrs. Mugabe’s alleged crime and the ensuing immunity are not only an injustice to Ms Engels but an affront to rule of law. Nevertheless, the government has the Diplomatic Immunities and Privileges Act on its side.
Ms Engels’ lawyer has indicated her intention to challenge the immunity in court. Perhaps South Africa and Zimbabwe have only executed temporal alleviation to what could be a drawn-out national and diplomatic headache and international media spectacle.