21/08/2017 15:41 BST | Updated 21/08/2017 18:18 BST

Grace Mugabe: Immunity, Or Impunity? Legal Experts Say SA Got It All Wrong

Legal experts say the law is being abused.

Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace arrive at the Parliament in Harare, October 28, 2014.


The "immunities and privileges" granted by South Africa's foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, towards Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe confuse diplomatic immunity, and the nature of political impunity, a legal expert told Huffpost SA.

"I think the grant of immunity was improperly done," Nicole Fritz, executive officer of Freedom Under Law told HuffPost SA. "It's not a grant of impunity to persons so they can come and engage in grievous assault and then be beyond the reach of the law," Fritz said.

Mugabe flew back to Zimbabwe on Sunday night after she was granted immunity from the assault charges laid against her by model Gabriella Engels. The 20-year old Engels, a model, claims Mugabe beat her with an extension cord in her sons' flat in Sandton.

"I think the way we have handled the situation is hamfisted. I don't think there was a whole lot of strategic thought that went into it. But this sort of situation is unprecedented in the South African context, and I'm sure in many countries around the world," Fritz said.

But, Fritz says, South Africans in Zimbabwe could've faced prosecution if Mugabe wasn't granted immunity.

Read: The Assault Case Against Grace Mugabe Is A Diplomatic Crisis -- Experts

"All sorts of retaliatory actions could've been taken against South Africa if Grace wasn't granted immunity. It could've potentially affected the lives of South African nationals kept in Zimbabwe. If Zimbabwe wanted to show its displeasure, they could've simply expelled South African diplomats, as well," Fritz explained.

Professor Hennie Strydom, who holds the South African Research Chair in International Law at the University of Johannesburg, explained to Africa Check how Diplomatic immunity in South Africa works.

"Diplomatic immunity refers to the protection and privileges extended to certain foreigners, such as members of diplomatic missions, consuls, ministers of foreign affairs and heads of state," he said.

The South African government, Africa Check states can also extend this protection to people on an ad hoc basis by publishing their names in the government gazette. It also applies to family members of diplomats and their personnel. But, this cannot be done posthumously, many legal experts said today.