Zimbabwe’s first lady Grace Mugabe has reportedly returned home from South Africa after failing to turn herself in to police in Johannesburg to face accusations of assaulting a model in a hotel room.
A senior Zimbabwean government official said late on Tuesday that she had returned to the capital Harare, although there was no comment from the wife of president Robert Mugabe, 93, who has ruled the country since 1980.
“Yes, she is back in the country. We don’t know where this issue of assault charges is coming from,” the official, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
A second official also confirmed that Grace had returned, saying “she is around now” and accused the media of a plot to tarnish the first family’s name.
Earlier, South African police had been negotiating with her lawyers to get her to turn herself in to face charges of assault in a court room.
Twenty-year-old Gabriella Engels told South African media Grace had attacked her with an electrical extension cord after the model had gone to see the Mugabes’ sons Robert and Chatunga at a hotel in Johannesburg’s upmarket Sandton district on Sunday.
However, confusion still surrounded the case on Tuesday after South African police minister Fikile Mbalula said earlier in the day that Grace had already handed herself in to police and would appear in court shortly.
In the afternoon, the magistrates’ court where police said Grace would be formally charged closed for the day without her appearing.
The case threatens to trigger a diplomatic incident between Zimbabwe and South Africa, which share a border and have close economic and political ties.
Pictures on social media appear to show Engels bleeding from her forehead after Mugabe allegedly arrived at the hotel with bodyguards and accused Engels of living with her sons, Robert and Chatunga, both in their 20s and based in the city.
“We were chilling in a hotel room, and [the sons] were in the room next door. She came in and started hitting us,” Engels told local media. “She flipped and just kept beating me with the plug, over and over.” She said she had “no clue” who her attacker was until the alleged assault was over.
Engels said she had “no idea what was going on … I was surprised. I had to crawl out of the room before I could run away”. Accusing the first lady’s bodyguards of standing by and watching during the alleged assault, she added: “The front of my forehead is busted open. I’m a model and I make my money based on my looks.”
Police confirmed a 20-year-old woman had filed “a case of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm”. It was not immediately clear whether Mugabe was travelling on a diplomatic passport or would qualify for diplomatic immunity if police do eventually bring charges against her.
South Africa’s foreign affairs spokesman, Clayson Monyela, said Mrs Mugabe’s trip was a private visit and the government would not be getting involved. But Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane, a provincial minister, said the case should go to court. “We hope that it will send a strong message to all leaders who abuse their power and assault innocent people in our country,” she told Jacaranda FM.
Opposition figures in Zimbabwe also called for her prosecution. “We want the South African police to arrest Grace Mugabe,” the leader of Zimbabwe’s Communist party, Nqabutho Mabhena, told the Mail & Guardian: “You cannot beat up a young lady for going out with your son.”
Police sources said Mrs Mugabe had originally agreed to hand herself in at 10am local time but failed to do so. Asked if she was now considered a fugitive, the sources told Reuters that was not the case at this stage, although she had “agreed to hand herself in, but never did”.
The incident is not the first time Mrs Mugabe has been accused of violent behaviour and assaults on overseas trips. In 2009 she punched a British photographer in Hong Kong for taking pictures of her at a luxury hotel.
She was one of Mugabe’s secretaries when their affair began in 1987 and the couple had two children in secret before the Zimbabwean president’s wife died in 1992. Their lavish 1996 wedding was attended by Nelson Mandela.
Long thought to be more interested in extravagant shopping sprees than politics, she has gradually become more active in public life and in 2014 became the head of the ruling Zanu-PF party’s women’s wing.
She now regularly attends rallies across the country and showed her political ambition in 2014 by launching a ruthless campaign against the then vice-president, Joice Mujuru, a potential presidential successor.
Last month she challenged her increasingly frail husband publicly for the first time to name a successor, potentially positioning herself as a runner before elections due next year.