Grace Mugabe returns to Zimbabwe despite assault claim

South Africa confirms it granted diplomatic immunity to first lady facing assault charges

FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2016, file photo, Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe attends a ruling ZANU PF Party Conference in Masvingo, Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean state media said Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, the wife of President Robert Mugabe returned home from South Africa despite calls that she be prosecuted for allegedly assaulting a young model at a luxury hotel in Johannesburg. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)

The wife of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe returned home from South Africa on Sunday after being granted diplomatic immunity over an alleged assault on a young model at a hotel in Johannesburg.

A report by Zimbabwean state broadcaster ZBC showed Grace Mugabe greeting government and military officials at Harare airport after returning on an Air Zimbabwe flight with her husband, who had attended a summit of southern African leaders in Pretoria.

South Africa later confirmed that it had acceded to Zimbabwe's request to grant immunity to Mrs Mugabe.

"I hereby recognise the immunities and privileges of the First Lady of the Republic of Zimbabwe, Dr Grace Mugabe," international relations and cooperation minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said in a notice published in the government gazette.

South African police had issued a "red alert" at borders to ensure Mrs Mugabe did not leave undetected after Gabriella Engels, 20, said Zimbabwe's first lady attacked her on August 13, whipping her with an extension cord that cut her forehead.

A group representing Ms Engels said it would go to court to challenge the government's decision to grant immunity to Mrs Mugabe.

"We will take a long term approach on this," said Willie Spies, legal representative at AfriForum, an organisation that primarily represents South Africa's white Afrikaner minority.

"She may be back in Zimbabwe, but it may mean that she will find it very difficult to come back to South Africa in the future," Mr Spies said.

The Zimbabwean president's outspoken wife has been criticised before for her fiery temper and lavish shopping expeditions. She has also emerged as a possible successor to her 93-year-old husband. She recently said that Zimbabwe's ruling party should restore a provision in its constitution stating that one of the party's vice presidents should be a woman, and has publicly challenged Mr Mugabe to name his successor.

Meanwhile, South African Airways said it will would resume flights to Zimbabwe after the lifting of restrictions imposed on Saturday by Zimbabwean aviation authorities. Zimbabwe's action followed the grounding of an Air Zimbabwe flight at Johannesburg's main international airport on Friday evening.

Both countries say they acted because planes did not have a "foreign operator's permit".

The announcement by South Africa's state-owned airline came hours after Zimbabwean media reported that Mrs Mugabe had returned home.