Scarred by attack, Gabriella Engels just wants Grace to say she's sorry
Model tries to put incident with former Zimbabwe first lady behind her
Gabriella Engels is still haunted by the night a year ago when Grace Mugabe found her in the Johannesburg hotel room where her two sons lived.
According to Engels, who was 20 at the time, an enraged Mugabe attacked her with an extension cord, injuring her forehead where a scar is still visible.
The incident on August 13 last year transformed Engels from a bubbly, outgoing model to a reclusive homebody who did not answer calls or messages and deactivated many of her social media accounts.She says that when strangers see her scar and ask about the encounter in the Sandton hotel, she pretends to be someone else who bears a resemblance to Engels.
She has dyed her hair to disguise herself and has put her modelling dreams on hold while her scar heals.
All Engels wants from Mugabe - who was first lady of Zimbabwe at the time - is an apology.
But she might be in for a long wait, despite a decision this week by the South Gauteng High Court to revoke Mugabe's diplomatic immunity.
"All I want from her is just for her to admit what actually happened that day and to apologise for what she did to me," Engels said.
"That's just for me to get closure so I can move on with my life."
She says Mugabe - whose husband Robert was ousted from power by the military three months later - stormed into the room at the Capital 20 West hotel armed with an electric cord.
Flanked by 10 bodyguards and hotel security, she was looking for her sons, Robert jnr, 25, and Chatunga Bellarmine, 21. The men fled the room, Engels says, leaving her and two friends at the mercy of a raging Mugabe.
Engels sustained deep cuts to her forehead and the back of her head and registered a case with the police. Pictures of her battered face went viral on social media.Shortly after the incident, the then international relations and co-operation minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, granted Mugabe diplomatic immunity, saying SA wanted to maintain good intergovernmental relations within the region, and in particular with Zimbabwe.
Lobby group AfriForum took up Engels' case and petitioned the high court in Johannesburg. This week the court set aside the granting of immunity, saying it was inconsistent with the constitution.Engels said she was "ecstatic" about the decision, and was "jumping up and down".
She said that in the weeks after the confrontation with Mugabe, she blamed herself for not having analysed the situation more carefully and for being naïve. That night was the first time she had met the Mugabe brothers but she agreed to go to their hotel room with a mutual male friend."I have forgiven her [Mugabe], because at the end of the day it's part of my healing," Engels said.
"For a really long time I blamed myself ... then I realised that what I did is things that normal people do and I wasn't in the wrong. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Engels described the months following the alleged assault as "hectic". She was always nervous when she went out and worried that people who recognised her would criticise her.
"The first three months after the assault were the hardest, I didn't go out. I went into a slump, I was almost depressed. My mom helped me a lot. She said, 'Don't let what happened to you get the better of you, you are better than this.'
"I was ashamed. At the time I got a lot of hate on social media. People were calling me a slut because there were stories going around that I was sleeping with the Mugabe brothers ...
"I would always be nervous when people recognised me. I'd walk away or avoid eye contact or walk faster, anything to avoid contact with them."
Still feeling self-conscious and insecure about her injuries, she now has a new skill to help deal with it - a diploma in how to apply makeup. She finished the course in Johannesburg last week.
"I had dreams of being famous, but not like this," Engels said. "I had dreams of becoming a presenter, a high-end commercial model. [But] after the assault, everyone just knew me as the girl that was assaulted by Grace. It's not something I want to be known for."
Mugabe's version of the incident, according to The Guardian newspaper, was that she acted in self-defence.TIMELINE
August 13 2017
• Gabriella Engels is allegedly assaulted by Grace Mugabe in a Sandton hotel.
August 14 2017
• The department of international relations and co-operation said diplomatic immunity would not apply.
August 15 2017
• Grace Mugabe reportedly agrees to hand herself in, but at 6pm her lawyers arrive at the Sandton police station claiming she has diplomatic immunity.
August 16 2017
• The Zimbabwean government invokes diplomatic immunity. Robert Mugabe arrives in SA ahead of the Southern African Development Community conference.
August 17 2017
• Lobby group AfriForum and former state prosecutor Gerrie Nel step in to support Engels.
August 20 2017
• Robert and Grace Mugabe fly out of SA in the early hours. Minister of international relations and cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane later in the day confirms that Grace has been granted diplomatic immunity.
August 23 2017
• Engels and AfriForum launch a court application challenging the decision to grant Grace diplomatic immunity.
July 30 2018
• The high court in Johannesburg sets aside the decision to grant Grace diplomatic immunity, calling it an error of law.