Landing in Johannesburg on a late Tuesday afternoon, I was welcomed to OR Tambo International Airport by the embarrassing news that First Lady Grace Mugabe had allegedly whipped a young model, Gabriella Engels, with an electric cord. As shocking as the headlines were, it’s somewhat unsurprising; that’s our (dis)Grace.
At that point I wished I could rewind back the last 18 hours, to a simpler time when I was hopping between East Africa’s cities with limited internet connection, but there I was at passport control waiting for my turn.
The immigration official laughed at my green book, stamped it and offered his sympathies.
But with President Robert Mugabe having jetted in, Grace could still have the last laugh if her request for backdated diplomatic immunity is granted, or South Africa’s powers that be decide neighbourly relations are too important to be spoiled by some hotel-room rage. After all, South Africa is Zimbabwe’s biggest trading partner. Like Minister of Finance Patrick Chinamasa once remarked, since the collapse of the manufacturing industry during the hyperinflation crisis of the 2000s, Zimbabwe is now a giant warehouse for cheap imports.
But while Mrs Mugabe could enjoy her husband’s protection, the ordinary people she hurts carry their scars for life. Gabriella Engels bears the physical and emotional bruises of her beating on Sunday. Nothing can compensate for that, but at least she has the guts to take Grace on, and South Africa’s law enforcers want the law to take its course. Back at home, however, those who become victims to the First Lady’s violent land grabs are powerless. And those who speak out against her are punished.
On Wednesday, Victor Matemadanda, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, was taken into police custody for recent comments calling Grace a “failed mother” and wearing a t-shirt bearing the words “control your sons first”. Matemadanda called on the First Lady to discipline her sons, Robert Junior and Chatunga instead of urging her husband, 93-year-old Mugabe, to name his successor.
Just before Grace’s comments, a night of partying by the Mugabe sons had ended in a violent brawl leading to their eviction from a luxury apartment in Sandton. And for speaking about the incident as a reflection on Grace’s leadership, Matemadanda has been charged. Like countless other Zimbabweans, he’s subject to an unconstitutional insult law that firmly guards the president’s authority.
Dr Amai Grace, however, is free to attack whoever she wants, whenever she pleases.
In ’99 she and her bodyguard allegedly assaulted a British photographer in Hong Kong. Just a few weeks ago, she publicly chided presidential spokesperson George Charamba for ignoring her development projects, but ensuring positive coverage of other senior officials in the state press. Of course Charamba has his flaws, and deserves little sympathy as Mugabe’s propagandist-in-chief, but dressing him down at a rally in front of thousands of people and dozens of cameras is very humiliating.
But, it is also very Grace-like.
If her public assaults on the character of dismissed vice president Joice Mujuru and former provincial party chairman Ray Kaukonde in 2014 are anything to go by, then once this case is closed it could become fodder for the campaign trail. Grace Mugabe at future rallies recounting what went down in that luxurious Sandton suite is a thought too scary to imagine. One can only hope a gag order is placed on her, otherwise her version could come with all the trimmings: racial and crude sexual slurs.
It may be pointless, but it needs to be said again and again until the penny drops: instead of subjecting Zimbabweans to more of her long tirades, perhaps Grace’s energies would be better spent managing her anger. Hitting another woman’s daughter with an electric cord on Women’s Day weekend is no way to vent one’s frustrations, especially as the mother of a nation. If she’s so angry, then maybe it’s high time she reined in her ‘wayward sons’ whose scandalous lifestyle causes her so many ‘sleepless nights’ and a disgraceful reputation worldwide.