News / Opinion / Columns

William Saunderson-Meyer
3 minute read
26 Aug 2017
5:35 am

The week SA thought about everything except doing the right thing

William Saunderson-Meyer

The granting of immunity to Grace Mugabe was completely shortsighted.

First lady Grace Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, President of South Africa Jacob Zuma and first lady Thobeka Zuma during President Robert Mugabe’s State Visit to South Africa. (Photo: GCIS)

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. Diplomatic immunity seems an attractive, quick solution to an ugly, messy problem.

After all, Grace is the wife of an important African leader, a man many admire because of his anti-colonial rhetoric and the risks he took in support of South Africa’s liberation struggle. There are also sound pragmatic arguments to be made. Grace is not only already the de facto power behind Robert Mugabe’s throne, she is also, very likely, his successor.

The countries share an extensive, porous, border. Unfortunately for the Zuma administration, the downsides stack up badly. However seductive the option, to grant Grace diplomatic immunity has reputational costs abroad and constitutional implications at home.

Our international reputation, in fact, will not be greatly affected. A minor physical assault by the Harare harridan is neither unheard of, nor unexpected, given her volatile combination of overweening arrogance and low self-control. The days when South Africa had a commanding moral stature are gone.

This incident will merely confirm the prevailing perception that South Africa’s political decisions are entirely mercenary, driven by short-term horizons and accompanied by a scary indifference to the law. This is why the country spinelessly, at China’s behest, pettily denied the Dalai Lama a visa.

This is why we ignored a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court – of which South Africa was a founding member – for the arrest of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s genocidal despot. But although our fading reputation is no barrier to immunity, the constitution is.

While it is now claimed she was part of the Zimbabwean delegation attending the Southern African Development Community summit, Grace entered the country more than a week earlier, reportedly for medical treatment and to visit her playboy sons.

In terms of the Diplomatic Immunities and Privileges Act, not even a head of state can escape the jurisdiction of South Africa’s courts when criminal injury is involved. The legality of Grace’s diplomatic immunity will eventually be ruled upon by the courts.

AfriForum’s attack beast, Advocate Gerrie “The Bulldog” Nel, intends to challenge the decision. However difficult the situation, it is easy to imagine how South Africa could have handled it better.

Most elegantly, it could have allowed court proceedings to go ahead and, if Grace were found guilty, Zuma could then 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 government’s actions has anything to do with the even-handed processes of the law. They have been about sparing Grace embarrassment and potential humiliation. It is a telling illustration of this brazen, shameless approach on the part of our president.


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.

William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer.