HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe’s first lady, Grace Mugabe, accused of attacking and injuring a young model she had found with her sons in a hotel room in South Africa, is seeking diplomatic immunity to fend off an assault charge, South African officials said on Wednesday.
The model, Gabriella Engels, 20, of South Africa, said that Mrs. Mugabe, 52, burst into the room and assaulted her with an extension cord on Sunday night after finding her at a luxury hotel in Johannesburg with Robert Mugabe Jr., 25, and Chatunga Mugabe, 21.
“There was blood everywhere,” Ms. Engels told the South African broadcaster News24 about the alleged attack by Mrs. Mugabe, the wife of President Robert Mugabe.
“When Grace entered, I had no idea who she was,” Ms. Engels said, adding: “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. I was surprised. I needed to crawl out of the room before I could run away.”
The model said the first lady’s 10 bodyguards had stood by and watched the attack. Afterward, Ms. Engels posted photos on social mediashowing a gash in her forehead and bruises on her body that she said had been caused by Mrs. Mugabe.
The South African police confirmed that “a case of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm” had been registered against the first lady on Monday.
“The investigation into this case has already reached an advanced stage,” the police added in a statement.
The reason for the attack is still a mystery, though Ms. Engels said the first lady had accused her of living with her sons. The Mugabe brothers, who reside in South Africa, have been in the news recently for sharing photos on social media about their lavish lifestyle in an upscale Johannesburg suburb, Sandton.
There was no immediate official reaction from the Zimbabwean government. An unsigned statement from South Africa’s minister of police, Fikile Mbalula, said Mrs. Mugabe had dispatched her legal representatives to claim diplomatic immunity.
A spokesman for the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, Clayson Monyela, told The Associated Press that the bid for immunity was under consideration.
In a brief telephone call on Wednesday, Olga Bungu, a spokeswoman for Zimbabwe’s first family, said: “I’m not at work; you can talk to Mr. Charamba. I don’t know anything.”
Ms. Bungu was referring to President Mugabe’s spokesman, George Charamba, who did not return repeated phone calls or respond to text messages seeking comment.
Mrs. Mugabe, the second wife of Mr. Mugabe, 93, has emerged as a main contender in the fierce jockeying to succeed the president, leaving opposition leaders and even members of his governing party, the Africa National Union Patriotic Front party, or ZANU-PF, uneasy. Her rapid ascent into Zimbabwean politics began in the president’s secretarial typing pool, and she soon took on the mantle of “first shopper” because of her extravagant spending on trips abroad.
The first lady, who has challenged her husband to name his successor, once told supporters that she was “already the president,” planning everything with her husband, who is the world’s oldest head of state.
Whether diplomatic immunity will save the Zimbabwean first lady again remains to be seen.
In 2009, Mrs. Mugabe was granted diplomatic immunity by Hong Kong’s Department of Justice after being accused of attacking a British photographer who took pictures of her shopping for designer clothes while her home country was mired in financial chaos and starvation.
Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations says that immunity from criminal, civil and administrative charges under the jurisdiction of a host state applies only to “an action relating to any professional or commercial activity exercised by the diplomatic agent in the receiving state outside his or her official functions.”
President Mugabe, speaking during a recent party rally in Gwanda, in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland Province, said his wife had gone to South Africa for a medical consultation over her leg, which was injured in a freakish accident some few weeks ago.
The president arrived in South Africa on Wednesday night to attend a summit meeting of the Southern African Development Community, set to begin on Thursday.
Initially, there was some confusion about whether Mrs. Mugabe was even in the South Africa after the alleged attack, with some news outlets saying she had slipped out of the neighboring country and returned home to Zimbabwe to evade arrest.
Mr. Mbalula, the South African minister of police, said in a video posted on the website eNCA that she had not been placed under arrest “because she cooperated and handed herself over” and that she was scheduled to appear in court later on Tuesday.
But the police clarified on Wednesday that she had failed to show up to receive a “warning statement” about the case, but remained in the country, The Associated Press said.
Zimbabwe’s minister of higher and tertiary education, science and technology development, Prof. Jonathan Moyo, mounted a spirited defense of the first lady, calling the claims she was a fugitive “lies” and writing on Twitter, “One cannot be a fugitive for not appearing at a court to which they have not been summoned & when they have not been charged of any crime!”