Zimbabwe's first lady failed to turn herself in to South African authorities Tuesday, apparently evading accusations that she beat a South African model and her friend with an extension cord over the weekend. Grace Mugabe, who allegedly committed the assault in a Johannesburg hotel as her bodyguards looked on, had been scheduled to appear in court — but now police are struggling to explain where, exactly, their suspect went.
Earlier Tuesday, South African Police Minister Fikile Mbalula told reporters that Mugabe had walked into a police station and cooperated with officers — only to be contradicted just hours later when a police spokesman told the news agency Agence France-Presse that the suspect, whom he would not name, "hasn't handed herself over yet."
Instead, spokesman Vishnu Naidoo told AFP that police are negotiating with the suspect's lawyers, adding, "We do not know her whereabouts at this stage."
The 52-year-old Mugabe — wife of Robert Mugabe, Zimbwabwe's leader of more than three decades — allegedly confronted Gabriella Engels, 20, at a hotel where she had been "chilling" with her friends on Sunday evening. Mugabe's two 20-something sons, Robert Jr. and Chatunga, had been in another room nearby, Engels told TimesLIVE.
"When Grace entered, I had no idea who she was," Engels told South Africa's News24. "She walked in with an extension cord and just started beating me with it. She flipped and just kept beating me with the plug. Over and over. I had no idea what was going on."
"Her bodyguards just stood back and watched her beat me and my friend," she told CapeTalk radio station.
Engels said that by the time she crawled from the room, "there was blood everywhere — over my arms, in my hair, everywhere."
It was only after she was escorted to the exit by a security guard that she said she discovered Grace Mugabe's identity: "I asked him who the woman was because I wanted to lay a case against her."
"I don't know how far this case is going to go," said Engels, who has shared a photo of a gash on her forehead, "but I just want my voice to be heard, because what she did really wasn't right."
Mugabe's 93-year-old husband is currently the world's oldest sitting president — and one of its longest-serving heads of state. The nonagenarian and his governing ZANU-PF party, which have been accused of presiding over a corrupt and repressive regime, have led Zimbabwe since the country gained its independence from the U.K. in 1980.
The first lady has said that if her husband should die before elections next year, "then we would rather field him as a corpse" than elect another candidate. Still, as she has taken on more public engagements in recent months, speculation has begun to circulate that she could serve as her husband's successor after he steps down or dies.
That speculation does little to help her in the eyes of South Africa's ministry of international relations, though. According to reporter Peter Granitz, officials there say that "since she's not a head of state, diplomat or cabinet official, she would not be covered by diplomatic immunity. "
But at the moment, the more pressing issue appears to be that officials don't even know where she is.
"It just didn't materialise as it was supposed to," Naidoo told AFP, referring to mistaken reports of Mugabe's cooperation. "As long as we don't have a suspect in custody, we cannot say when they will appear in court."