In one of the tawdrier ongoing international political scandals, an alleged assault by Zimbabwe’s first lady has created a diplomatic crisis for South Africa this week.
It all started on Sunday when Grace Mugabe, wife of President Robert Mugabe, walked in on her two adult sons and a model named Gabriella Engels at an upscale hotel in Johannesburg. The sons are university students there and have appeared in the tabloids before for their hard-partying ways.
It’s not clear what the three were doing that upset the first lady, but Engels says Mugabe began beating her with an extension cord. Engels has posted a photo on Twitter of a nasty gash to her forehead and expressed concern that it could affect her modeling career.
Mugabe has not yet been charged but struck a deal with authorities to appear in court on Tuesday. She didn’t show. Her current whereabouts are unknown, but she is reportedly still in South Africa and police have issued a “red alert” on the country’s borders to prevent her from leaving. She has asked for diplomatic immunity, and according to one source, it was granted on Friday. President Mugabe is also in South Africa: He’s attending a regional summit this weekend but traveled there early to deal with his wife’s situation.
This isn’t the first time Grace’s temper has gotten her into trouble abroad, though usually nosy journalists are her preferred target. She was granted immunity after an alleged attack on a British photographer in 2009. Just a few weeks ago, she was briefly detained in Singapore after she reportedly assaulted reporters and threw their cellphones into a pond. She paid the victims $1,300 each, according to local media. She’s also famous for her overseas shopping sprees, including reportedly once spending $96,000 in a single day on luxury goods in Paris and taking 15 carts worth of purchases into the first-class lounge of the Singapore airport. (Zimbabwe is one of the poorest countries in the world with 37 percent of households suffering from malnutrition.)
Mugabe’s wife, his second, began an affair with the president while she was his secretary and he was still married. (He claims his first wife, then terminally ill, approved of the relationship.) She married him—a man 41 years her senior—in 1996. But don’t dismiss her as a free-spending trophy wife with a temper: She might very well be the next president.
At 93, Robert Mugabe, in power since 1980, is the world’s oldest head of state and his health is thought to be faltering. (Though in fairness to him, that’s been thought for quite a while now.) Grace leads one of the two main factions jockeying behind the scenes for power once he eventually leaves the stage, and she’s believed to have engineered the 2014 ouster of a popular vice president thought to be a leading candidate for the presidency.
The latest scandal has also highlighted the unusual amount of time both Mugabes spent outside Zimbabwe. Robert now spends much of his time abroad receiving medical treatment, sometimes going off the grid for weeks at a time with subordinates unable to account for his whereabouts. In 2015, the government of Zimbabwe was involved in an embarrassing legal dispute over a Hong Kong villa, theoretically a government property but used almost exclusively by the Mugabe family.
The affair is also a headache for South Africa, which has a complicated relationship with its northern neighbor. Even as Zimbabwe has descended into economic chaos and political repression under Mugabe’s rule, South African leaders—both current President Jacob Zuma and his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki—have been hesitant about putting too much pressure on him. South Africa, which already hosts a large population of Zimbabwean refugees, is worried about the fallout from an accelerated collapse of the Zimbabwean regime as well as backlash from domestic voters who support Mugabe, a onetime liberation hero who still casts himself as the persecuted foe of western imperialism.
Letting Grace Mugabe off the hook would also risk giving South Africa a reputation as a safe haven for dictators. The government was also criticized in 2015 for allowing Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, under indictment for crimes including genocide by the International Criminal Court, to leave the country hours before a South African court ruled they were obligated to arrest him.
It would also make a mockery of the concept of diplomatic immunity, which is meant to protect officials (and their families) while they’re involved in official state business. Taking an extension cord to the forehead of your sons’ model friend wouldn’t normally fall under that category.