Thousands of Zimbabweans marched through Harare on Wednesday in a show of support for first lady Grace Mugabe who evaded assault allegations in South Africa by claiming diplomatic immunity.
The march, organised by President Robert Mugabe’s all-powerful Zanu-PF party, came two weeks after Grace was accused of attacking a 20-year-old model at an upmarket Johannesburg hotel.
Grace Mugabe had reportedly been expected to address the “solidarity rally” once marchers reached the party’s headquarters in the capital, but she did not appear at the event.
She is alleged to have assaulted Gabriella Engels with an electrical extension cable at the hotel where the Mugabes’ two sons, who are in their 20s and have a reputation for partying, were staying.
The marchers, who were mainly women and young men dressed in party colours, chanted slogans and sang praises for “Dr Amai” (Doctor Mother).
Some street vendors and shopkeepers from the outskirts of Harare told AFP they were forced to close their businesses and join the march.
“We support the president and Dr Amai all the way to elections in 2018,” said 21-year-old unemployed mother-of-one Belinda Sunga, adding she relied on party-sponsored projects to survive.
President Mugabe, 93, who came to power in 1980, is due to stand again in elections next year, with his wife, 52, seen as one possible successor when he leaves office.
“We came here to march and mobilise support for our president and the first lady,” said Lovemore Goka, 22, a motor mechanic who travelled by Zanu-PF transport from Gokwe, about 340 kilometres (210 miles) away.
“Engels is not an angel,” read one placard held by a supporter while another said “We Stand by Our Mother, Dr Grace.”
Engels suffered cuts to her forehead and the back of her head, and opened a police case in South Africa alleging assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm.
Zimbabwean opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) dismissed the marchers as “sycophants” trying to seek favour with the Mugabe regime.
“If there should be any march, it should be against Grace Mugabe,” MDC spokesman Obert Gutu told AFP.
“The march is an insult to women. She had no decency to apologise after she was granted diplomatic immunity in suspicious circumstances.”
The state-run Herald newspaper on Wednesday ran a special supplement praising Grace Mugabe for her charity work and describing her as “a loving mother of the nation”.
The first lady is increasingly active in public life and in 2014 became the head the Zanu-PF party’s women’s wing.
She regularly speaks at rallies across the country, railing against anyone alleged to be disloyal to the president, and handing out clothes and domestic goods.