Zimbabwe first lady Grace Mugabe, who faces assault charges in South Africa, will cast a long shadow over the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Summit in Pretoria this weekend after wrong-footing South African police.
Despite suggestions that the first lady had returned to Zimbabwe on Tuesday, South Africa's police ministry said she remains in that country and has indicated plans to attend the regional bloc's summit, which officially opens on Saturday. A programme of spouses of SADC heads of State and government is slated for Saturday noon.
President Robert Mugabe left Harare for South Africa last night ahead of other heads of State scheduled to arrive today and tomorrow.
The matter has escalated to a diplomatic incident between Zimbabwe and its main trading partner, South Africa, adding to already frayed economic relations over import restrictions imposed by Harare last year.
The import restrictions are believed to be a part of ongoing discussions at this year's summit, whose theme is: "Partnering with the private sector in developing industry and regional value chains."
Grace is alleged to have assaulted 20-year-old South African woman Gabriella Engels, who was in the company of the Mugabes' sons, Robert Junior and Bellermine, at a Sandton hotel on Saturday night.
Without naming her, a statement issued by South Africa's Police Ministry yesterday indicated Grace had undertaken to present herself to the police on Tuesday morning, but failed to do so.
"The suspect in the matter made arrangements acceptable to SAPS that she would present herself to SAPS Police Station in Sandton yesterday, August 15, 2017 at 10:00 hours. The time scheduled changed several times," the ministry said in a statement issued yesterday.
"By end of business yesterday (Tuesday), she had failed to present herself as arranged."
The police had intended to obtain a statement, with her version of events, before presenting the docket to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) for a decision on whether to prosecute or not.
Instead it was Grace's lawyers, with Zimbabwe government representatives in tow, who showed up at the Sandton police station to open channels of communication.
"The suspect's lawyers and her government representatives made verbal representations to SAPS investigators that the suspect wished to invoke diplomatic immunity cover and thus she elected to change her mind about the warning statement," the ministry added.
"Subsequently, the Government of Zimbabwe has dispatched a diplomatic note verbale to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO) invoking the said diplomatic immunity cover."
The police ministry signaled its determination to have Grace "processed through the legal system."
South African media quoted DIRCO spokesman, Clayson Monyela, saying Grace could not claim diplomatic immunity if she was in the country on personal business.
"She needs to be here on official business. It won't apply if she's here on holiday or for something else," Monyela told the Sowetan.
"Secondly, as a first lady, she's not part of government or a government official. It doesn't apply just because she's the wife of a president."
Zimbabwe government officials were not available.