Opposition, lawyers turn up heat on SA govt over Grace

HARARE - South Africa’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, faced hostile questions from opposition legislators on Wednesday as he tried to win lawmakers over the controversial decision to grant diplomatic immunity to Zimbabwe’s First Lady Grace Mugabe which allowed her to return to Harare and avoid prosecution for the alleged assault of a 20-year-old model.

Ramaphosa was testifying before legislators during a question and answer session in South Africa’s National Assembly about the decision by that country’s Foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, to invoke diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention, to let Grace escape justice.

Gabriella Engels, a supermodel, alleges that Grace attacked her on August 13 in full view of her bodyguards, whipping her with an extension cord that cut her forehead after finding her in the company of her two sons in a hotel room.

Ramaphosa — a unionist-turned-business tycoon expected to face off against veteran politician Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former African Union chairwoman and President Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife when the African National Congress (ANC) picks the incumbent’s successor in December — was taken to task in the National Assembly by opposition Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) parliamentarian Liezl van der Merwe.

The IFP lawmaker inquired whether Ramaphosa, viewed as investor friendly and has pledged to fight the corruption that has plagued Zuma’s tenure, supported the decision to grant the Zimbabwean first lady immunity even after committing the heinous crime against a South African national.

This followed a call by South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) for a parliamentary probe into Pretoria’s controversial decision, with DA chief whip John Steenhuisen saying Pretoria has “no more legitimacy in the arena of international diplomacy and displays a total disregard for the rule of law.”

“I think as a leader of government business you must provide us with some answers,” Van der Merwe said.

“I would like to know from you honourable deputy president, what type of government would stand on the side of an alleged abuser?”

Ramaphosa, seen as a top contender to lead the ruling ANC into 2019 general elections, had a torrid time defending government’s position to let Grace go scot-free.

“It’s the first time we have utilised this type of convention and a lot can be said on pro and against it.

“And in the end, there needs to be the clarity that there is on this matter is not full and complete. In the sense that, yes, in certain environments it’s applied, in others, it’s not. So, it happens to have been applied here,” he said amid loud heckling and interjections by members of Parliament in the opposition benches.

This came as Engels and rights group AfriForum filed a notice in the Pretoria High Court on Wednesday seeking to set aside the decision by Nkoana-Mashabane to grant Grace immunity.

The application argues that the decision to grant immunity to Grace “lacks legality and… should be declared invalid”.

Engels argued that the minister “misconstrued her powers” in the process.

Opposition MPs also moved a motion to summon Nkoana-Mashabane to explain her decision in the National Assembly, but a date is yet to be decided.

But a notice published by South Africa’s department of International Relations and Cooperation in a government’s gazette said: “In accordance with the powers vested in me by Section 7(2) of the Diplomatic Immunities and Privileges Act 2001 (Act No.37 of 2001) and acting in the interest of Republic of South Africa, I hereby recognise the immunities and privileges of the First Lady of the Republic of Zimbabwe, Grace Mugabe, in terms of international law as set out in the attached notice”

Grace was granted immunity for the following reasons:

• The need to uphold the rule of law, ensure fair administration of justice and uphold the rights of the complainant;

• The imperative to maintain good inter-governmental relations within the Sadc region, and in particular between the Republic of South Africa and the Republic of Zimbabwe;

• The fact that the matter coincides with South Africa’s hosting of the 37th Sadc Summit of Heads of State and Government;

• Legal considerations, including derivative immunity of spouses of Heads of State.

But Nkoana-Mashabane told reporters in Pretoria on Wednesday that granting diplomatic immunity to Grace was “painful.”

“I am here. My name is Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. (I am) a very responsible mother, you can ask my children.

“Others know I am very supportive. It’s been a very painful exercise. It still is. Having said that, we are following the law,” she said.

She said she had addressed letters to National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete and the chair of Parliament’s international relations portfolio committee, Siphosezwe Masango, updating them on her decision.

“We have written to Parliament and we will follow up on this matter,” she said.

South Africa’s powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has since declared that Grace should be declared a prohibited immigrant to be denied entry into Mzansi and deported upon arrival.

“... Grace ... should be banned from ever coming into this country,” said Sizwe Pamla, the Cosatu national spokesperson in a damning statement yesterday.

“Our government’s camouflaged surrender and cowardice is shameful. We are turning into a Banana republic very fast because of our government’s misdirected idealism.”

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