Both the South African and Malawian governments have denied that Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera gave fraud-accused pastor Shepherd Bushiri a lift home on his Air Malawi flight on Friday night, with the story about his escape from South Africa gradually appearing to have been a lot more complicated than this. Initial speculation had it that the delay of almost seven hours — causing the flight to land back in Lilongwe after midnight — was because Bushiri was on board and the paperwork had to be sorted out.
Sources who were at Waterkloof on Friday said Chakwera’s foreign minister, Eisenhower Mkaka, caused a scene when he was not allowed to board the plane at Waterkloof. Mkaka was part of Chakwera’s advance mission, which meant he arrived in South Africa earlier than the Malawian president, who arrived on Thursday and disembarked at OR Tambo International Airport.
According to law, only the 17 members of Chakwera’s delegation who had disembarked at Waterkloof were allowed to fly from there again. When Chakwera wanted to leave on Friday, there were 65 members in his delegation in total, but the South Africans stood firm on the law.
The flight path, which saw the plane take off from Waterkloof Air Force Base and land at OR Tambo, had planespotters speculating that there might have been some kind of repeat of the Gupta plane landing in 2013, when the national keypoint was illegally used to receive rich private individuals in the country. Presidential press secretary Brian Banda posted a short statement on Facebook saying the flight had been delayed “due to clerical glitches in the travel arrangements for Malawi State Officials who had travelled to South Africa ahead of the President’s arrival”.
Malawi’s Nyasa Times reported on Sunday that Mkaka met the Enlightened Church Gathering founder in South Africa on Tuesday, a day before Bushiri is reported to have left the country. Mkaka, however, told BBC reporter Nomsa Maseko that Bushiri’s return to Malawi “was done in his personal capacity and [he] received no help through official channels”.
Mkaka said it was the duty of the Malawian government to protect all Malawians, but that Chakwera was a staunch advocate of the rule of law — implying that Chakwera wanted to see the court case go ahead — and that diplomatic channels would remain open.
Bushiri, in an address streamed by his television station, Rainbow TV, on Saturday night, claimed that there had been attempts on his life, with South African authorities refusing to intervene.
“Our coming to Malawi, hence, is a tactical withdrawal from the Republic of South Africa solely meant to preserve our lives,” said Bushiri. “We have to be alive to testify.”
Bushiri was arrested in mid-October and was charged with fraud and money laundering involving more than R100-million. He and his wife were out on R200,000 bail each. His assets were seized ahead of his arrest and his impounded Gulfstream III private jet is still parked at Lanseria Airport. The couple also had to surrender their passports, but there was testimony during their bail hearing that they had several of these, among which were diplomatic passports granted by them by the Malawian government.
Speculation has it that Bushiri left through one of South Africa’s fairly porous land borders, with Maseko tweeting that a syndicate specialising in bringing stolen cars from South Africa into Malawi was responsible for smuggling out Bushiri and his wife. Another source said that unconfirmed reports had it that Bushiri crossed the border into Zimbabwe, most likely at the congested Beit Bridge, and that he was picked up by a private plane just inside the border and flown back to Malawi. It is not clear when Bushiri landed in Lilongwe, but he posted news of his return on his Facebook page only on Saturday, the same day that saw the presidential delegation returning.
South African government spokesperson Phumla Williams confirmed in a statement on Sunday that Bushiri and his wife, Mary, were not on the flight with Chakwera after his working visit to President Cyril Ramaphosa, where they discussed “a broad range of initiatives to strengthen relations between the governments and peoples of the two countries”.
She said home affairs immigration officials verified the identities of all passengers and the Bushiris were not on the flight. South Africa has, however, “initiated a process to secure their extradition from Malawi in terms of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Extradition and other legal instruments, to which Malawi is a signatory”.
Williams said law enforcement agencies would continue investigations. Home affairs spokesperson Siya Qoza did not respond to questions on which border posts the department suspects the Bushiris used. Contrary to Williams’s statement, which says travellers departing South Africa “are required to present themselves to an immigration officer who, among other checks, verifies that the passport belongs to the traveller”, passports are often collected by a fixer and processed in bulk at the Beit Bridge border post, without immigration officials verifying the identity of the owner.
Even if Chakwera had no hand in getting Bushiri back to Malawi, the incident could cause diplomatic friction with South Africa. Nyasa Times reported that there was pressure on Chakwera by local traditional leaders to find out what was happening with Bushiri in South Africa and, if need be, step in to return him home. Chakwera said he could not respond because the matter was still in court, but he promised to make inquiries and inform the nation.
Civil society group Malawi Watch executive director Billy Banda and a Malawi Electoral Commission official Anthony Mukuwamba, a close friend of Bushiri, alleged that Bushiri was targeted by investigating agencies and receiving unfair treatment from South Africa’s legal system.
Chakwera, who is the incoming chair of SADC, is a newcomer to regional politics. His election over incumbent Peter Mutharika during a re-run of the country’s elections in June was hailed as a victory for opposition parties in the region, where former liberation movements still maintain close ties.
There were reports that Bushiri funded Chakwera’s election campaign, but the same was also true for Mutharika’s campaign. Mkaka is the secretary of the Malawi Congress Party while Chakwera is the leader.