* Focus on SA visit by pastor’s pal, Malawi’s president, this week
By Graeme Hosken, Thanduxolo & Amanda Khoza, timeslive.co.za
A diplomatic storm is brewing between South Africa and Malawi after Pastor Shepherd Bushiri absconded this week — at about the same time that Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera jetted into SA for a brief meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The slick escape from SA has left Ramaphosa “extremely angry” and law enforcement agencies red-faced.
An Interpol Red Alert has been activated for Bushiri — a self-proclaimed prophet and the leader of the Enlightened Christian Gathering Church — who fled with his wife Mary.
The alarm was sounded after the couple failed to check in at their local police station on Friday, as required by their bail conditions.
They are facing charges of theft, money laundering and fraud in connection with an alleged R100m “investment scheme”. They were granted R200,000 each bail by a Pretoria magistrate’s court last week [and] their bail conditions barred them from leaving SA.
Bushiri claims he flew out of SA on Wednesday, but authorities have not been able to confirm this. What is known is that the couple absconded some time between Monday and Friday.
Chakwera’s delegation is believed to have landed in SA on Thursday and departed on Friday.
Chakwera has denied any prior knowledge of Bushiri’s escape, but questions have been raised about the timing of his visit, as well as a seven-hour delay in his departure.
A senior government official said it is suspected that newly elected Chakwera came to SA “under the pretence” of briefing Ramaphosa about a brewing revolt in his own country against him.
He said given Chakwera’s close relations with Bushiri that date from before he became president, it could not be ruled out that he gave him a lift. Bushiri is said to have funded Chakwera’s election campaign.
The official said suspicions were raised when Chakwera’s people called the department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco) on Friday, saying they were “experiencing challenges leaving”.
“Someone may have intervened, not knowing that Bushiri was on board,” said the official.
He said a diplomatic falling-out between Malawi and SA is unavoidable as Chakwera’s government is unlikely to send Bushiri back to face criminal charges in SA.
A senior Hawks source with knowledge of the investigation said there will be a meeting between investigators, prosecutors, home affairs and Dirco officials this week.
“It’s to establish what the hell happened. How is it that the couple, who had surrendered all their passports, were able to get out?
“Questions will be sent to the Malawian government through diplomatic channels to establish whether he was re-issued with a diplomatic passport, if so why and when, and whether he used to it to escape SA.”
The source said Bushiri had a Malawian diplomatic passport, though he is not a diplomat and does not enjoy immunity.
“What is suspicious is the delay of the Malawian president’s return flight to that country. The delay was announced on that country’s presidential Facebook page.
“It was described as being caused by clerical issues. We will want to know what these clerical issues were that caused the delay.
“Just a few hours after the delay and the Malawian president announced that he had safely returned to Malawi, Bushiri announces that he is back in his home country. Nothing in this is adding up.”
Malawian presidency spokesperson Brian Banda dismissed suggestions that the president had anything to do with Bushiri’s fleeing SA.
“We want to refute categorically that Bushiri boarded the same plane with the president. That is totally unfounded.”
He said Chakwera’s seven-hour delay in leaving SA was caused by several “glitches”.
“Before the president arrived his advance party came to SA. The president was free to go, but because the plane was not full, and the advance party had travelled to SA earlier on the same plane that brought the president, it was decided, and agreed to by the president and his chief of staff, that these officials would travel back to Malawi with the president,” said Banda.
“There were, however, some glitches, which caused the delay. There was nothing sinister about this.”
Regarding Bushiri’s skipping bail and leaving SA, Banda said the Malawian government is monitoring the situation.
“The president, who won our country’s elections on the promise to respect the rule of law, cannot and will not interfere in issues of justice,” he said.
SA has an extradition agreement with Malawi.
Malawian minister of information and government Gospel Kazako said: “We have no details as to how, with who and when [Bushiri] got to Malawi.”
Asked if the government would be investigating, he said it would rely on information provided by the South African government.
On reports that Bushiri sneaked in with the Malawian president, he said: “It can never happen. President Lazarus Chakwera is one of the few honest men in the continent, he would never let that happen.
“His nature, faith, values and personality would never let that happen.”
In SA, acting presidency spokesperson Tyrone Seale also denied that Bushiri left with Chakwera. He said the pastor had not been discussed in the meeting between the two heads of state.
A defiant Bushiri posted a statement on Facebook on Saturday, saying he had “temporarily” returned to Malawi because he believed SA could not guarantee his safety.
He said South African authorities had failed to act on several death threats he had received.
Dirco spokesperson Nelson Kgwete referred questions to the National Prosecuting Authority and home affairs.
A senior Dirco official, who did not want to be named, said: “The president is extremely angry and has instructed the security cluster ministers to get answers as to what happened.
Fortunately, Malawi has ratified the [Southern African Development Community] protocol on extraditions. It will be easier to get them back to SA to face the music.
There are talks currently under way with Malawi to urgently get the Bushiris back. Home affairs (border management), state security and the police have tough questions to answer.
“An Interpol Red Alert has been activated. In terms of this all member countries of Interpol will monitor his movements and, once detected, he will immediately be apprehended and handed over to the authorities [in SA].
We are engaging our counterparts in Zimbabwe to check if he has not used it for his escape.”
Bushiri’s spokesperson, Ephraim Nyondo, said Bushiri arrived in Malawi on Wednesday. He was unable to say whether Bushiri had used a passport to leave SA or what mode of transport he had used.
“He definitely did not come back with the president of Malawi,” said Nyondo. “He arrived back in Malawi on Wednesday evening. The president only came back on Friday night.”
Nyondo said there were several things Bushiri wanted the South African government to address before he returned to SA.
These include an undertaking that his bail will not be revoked despite his breaking his bail conditions; his safety being guaranteed by the South African government; and the removal and arrest of the detectives involved in the case and recusal of the prosecutors, whom he has laid complaints against.
He also wants the complaints investigated before his case proceeds.
Bushiri’s lawyer, Tshepo Mathopo, declined to comment, saying “his legal team are in the dark about this”.
A source close to his legal team said: “We were informed on Friday night that he didn’t report to the police station. We don’t know how he left the country.
“If the police and prosecutors go to court to apply for his arrest, his lawyers will withdraw their services. What has happened is totally unacceptable.
“God alone knows how he left the country. It’s highly worrying. We are hearing that he was not flagged at any border post.
“That to us means that someone either gave him other travel documents or arranged for him to leave without travel documents, which points to this being orchestrated.”
Hawks spokesperson Col Katlego Mogale said: “Investigators together with prosecutors have been working tirelessly since it came to light that he did not report at the police station.
“We are now looking into the timeline of what happened after Bushiri and his wife [last] reported to the police station.”
University of Johannesburg international law professor Hennie Strydom said everyone should be alarmed by Bushiri’s disappearance.
“The arrival and delayed departure of the Malawian president and then the Facebook post by Bushiri are highly concerning.
“The timing and seeming coincidence raise serious questions. Like with what happened with the escape of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, this disappearance provides adequate ground for serious questions to be asked.
“This guy has skipped bail. The questions that need to be answered are whether he was aided or abetted in doing so, and if so, who assisted him?”
He said law enforcement and SA’s border controls have been notoriously bad for years.
Home affairs spokesperson Siya Qoza said the minister has instructed the director-general to establish the facts around how Bushiri left the country.