‘South Africa is the Mugabes’ destination of choice for depositing wayward sons and for minor shopping needs and medical procedures’

Be graceful for small mercies, to adapt a phrase.

Two Sundays ago 20-year-old Gabriella Engels was, along with two other unnamed women, allegedly assaulted by Zimbabwe’s Grace Mugabe. In the presence of the Zim power couple’s sons and 10 bodyguards she was apparently dragged by her hair and beaten with a plug attached to a cord by the first lady from hell. Via social media, Engels showed the world her rather severe wounds.

Here are five crisp observations 10 days after this tawdry episode, the repercussions of which will last a lot longer.

First, we can drop the legal nicety that the crime is but an allegation and not proven. You can bet a trillion Zim dollars (courtesy of the nonagenarian Robert Mugabe, that is worth about R10) that, had the events Engels described not actually happened, our motor-mouth Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula would have said as much.

But he was strangely silent on the topic. All he promised was a “red alert” on the border to stop her. But by Sunday, that had morphed into a green light as Grace flew the coop back to Harare. The rackety but handy cure-all for disgraceful-but-connected foreigners, diplomatic immunity, worked its wonders.

Second, you might wonder, why the young victim here has got any reason to be grateful? Well, at the same time as this event hit the headlines last week, the Zimbabwean dictator held forth on more murderous matters.

According to reports, when he addressed thousands of his supporters in Marondera outside Harare, the man who has for 37 years presided over the ruin of a country (now more basket case than the breadbasket it once was) said no one would be prosecuted for the murder of at least 12 commercial farmers, killed when his Zanu-PF thugs invaded their farms in the early 2000s.

“Yes, we have those [white farmers] who were killed when they resisted,” the great man described straightforward murder with immense delicacy. And then he added the fateful rider, according to the News Day report: “We will never prosecute those who killed them. I ask: Why should we arrest them?”

It is a very small ask for him, in the lesser matter of aggravated assault, to request the South African government to give his spouse immunity from prosecution.

Third, having never met a law-delinquent tyrant of whom it does not approve, the South African authorities were happy to comply. Just as they did in June 2015 when they assisted Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir to flee from here, in the face of a court order that compelled his detention.

Fourth, South Africa is the Mugabes’ destination of choice for depositing wayward sons and for minor shopping needs and medical procedures. But for larger junketeering and hospital stayovers, they apparently prefer Asian hotspots.

Just as well Grace decided to vent her violent fury on the unfortunate Engels in Sandton rather than find a victim in Singapore. That country is a famous stickler for the rule of law. Since the sort of drug-peddling which might result in a suspended jail sentence here can lead to the death penalty over there, she might have found herself in the sort of water her weapon of choice, an extension cord, usually heats up.

But this high-profile assault on young females (in the month in which women are meant to be affirmed against harm) also produced a local villain in the disgraceful mould. He was, until the weekend, a member of the same government which mouths sonorous clichés against “gender-based violence”. However, late is better than never.

Thirteen days after higher education and training deputy minister Mduduzi Manana was filmed assaulting two defenceless women in a nightclub, he quit. Or he was pushed. His resignation statement was as rare as his act was despicable – he took full personal responsibility for his deed. He didn’t even blame white monopoly capital for forcing his hand.

Fifthly, “By their deeds shall you know them” is an ancient wisdom that plays out every day now in our “schizophrenic republic” (with apologies to James Baldwin). So while the ANC hunts down MPs who dared to follow their consciences in the parliamentary no-confidence vote, another erring and junketeering minister – the maladroit Minister of Public Service and Administration, Faith Muthambi – is off the hook so far. She bust the SABC and is faithless to the fiscus.

As a staunch keeper of the faith of JZ, she simply used taxpayer funds as a personal piggy bank to fund a planeload of relatives. But she is beyond parliament’s reach. And she is of no interest to ANC disciplinary procedures.

Three hundred years ago, Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift wrote: “Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.”

Here in Southern Africa the trampling on the rule of law is both updating and indigenising his truism. But it is going to land up stinging us all, from lesser victims to the larger issues of breaking citizens’ trust and beggaring our international reputation.

  • Leon (@TonyLeonSA), a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London
  • Featured in The Times