A major political row is blowing up between South Africa and Malawi over what may have been a ploy by Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera to smuggle his friend, a pastor accused of running a multi-million dollar pyramid-type scheme who was out on bail, back into Malawi.
The Malawian president’s office has strenuously denied reports that there seems something “very fishy”, as one Nation source said, about the incident.
High-level government sources here are convinced that there is a link between President Chakwera’s little-notice visit to see President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ‘miraculous’ disappearance of Pastor Shepherd Bushiri and his wife Mary from SA, to turn up in Malawi within hours of Chakwera’s return.
Bushiri is a self-proclaimed prophet and leader of the Enlightenment Christian Gathering Church.
He and his wife, who had been preaching to large congregations in SA after having come here on Malawian diplomatic passports – although neither are diplomats – are accused of running a US$6.5 million scheme amounting to theft, money-laundering and fraud.
They had been released into the arms of throngs of jubilant supporters after each was granted US$13,000 bail days before Chakwera’s visit.
The Malawian president was in SA to brief Ramaphosa, the current African Union chair, about a “revolt” back home. But sources here say this was almost certainly a cover to allow Bushiri’s escape. The Malawian leader, who is known to have been friends with Bushiri from before his rise to power, was in SA on Thursday.
Suspiciously, sources say there was a late-night announcement of a delay in Chakwera’s flight from SA after the presidential meeting due to an unexplained “clerical” problem.
Within hours of a subsequent announcement that Chakwera had returned to Malawi, the Bushiris were on social media telling their supporters that they were back home.
Rather than absconding from bail, the couple said they had made a “withdrawal” of themselves from SA due to numerous deaths threats.
The couple, who deny the charges against them, said they had made complaint to the SA police of the threats but nothing was done to protect them so they had had no choice but to flee for their lives.
The couple had supposedly surrendered all passports and travel documents, as well as undertaking not to flee, when they were granted bail.
Questions are now flying here and in Malawi around how the couple escaped as their names would certainly have been on border post and airport customs watch lists.
They told their supporters that they had flown out of SA on Wednesday, without further explanation.
It is understood that Ramaphosa is “furious” that he may have been used “as a sucker”, as one official phrased it, in order for Chakwera to get his old friend out of SA.
Questions have been asked by SA official of their Malawian counterparts and the matter will be escalated early this coming week, the Nation has learnt.
Interpol and other international policing arrangements are likely to be invoked to force Malawi’s hand in arresting the couple and transporting them back to SA to face trial.
It remains unclear whether the Bushiris left SA on a scheduled flight, though that seems unlikely to officials.
If so, it opens many questions about what passports they were travelling on to do so, issued when and by whom, and how they got past local customs.
Inside sources say the “overwhelming suspicion” is, rather, that they made their escape aboard the Malawian presidential jet, despite the loud denials from Chakwera and his spokesman.
A major diplomatic falling out is now expected as it seems unlikely, according to sources in Malawi, that Chakwera will allow the re-arrest and return to SA for trial of Bushiri and his wife.