Pretoria’s relations with Malawi’s Chakwera get off on wrong foot

Malawian President Chakwera and South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa

South Africa’s relations with Malawi’s new President Lazarus Chakwera have started badly, clouded by suspicions that he helped a fugitive escape South African justice and complaints that Pretoria damaged his dignity by delaying his departure from South Africa.

By Peter Fabricius

Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera, elected in June 2020, made his first official visit to South Africa last week, meeting President Cyril Ramaphosa. It all seemed at first to be a success.

But the visit became embroiled in the controversy over the near-simultaneous flight from South Africa of the indicted Malawian TV pastor Shepherd Bushiri and his wife Mary after they had skipped bail.

Both the Malawian and South African governments have denied media speculation that the multimillionaire Bushiris — who are believed to have helped bankroll Chakwera’s election campaign — escaped to Malawi on Chakwera’s plane.

But Chakwera’s flight home has soured relations with Pretoria anyway. On Monday, the Malawian government issued an angry statement complaining that the departure of Chakwera’s aircraft from Waterkloof Air Force Base on Friday had been delayed by seven hours, mainly because South African authorities wouldn’t allow the Malawian foreign minister and some other officials to board.

The Malawi government said the delay had been caused by SA’s “inexplicable refusal” to allow Chakwera’s advance party to board his plane at Waterkloof Air Force Base.

The statement said South African authorities had cited “unspecified security reasons” for its refusal. Pretoria had initially also refused — “for no apparent reason” —  to allow the Malawians to fly the presidential plane to Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport to pick up the advance party. But it had eventually allowed that after several more hours of delay.

Malawi said it was “justified in its dissatisfaction with the unspecified security reasons cited for the refusal”. It said Chakwera’s plane had been parked at Waterkloof military airbase, a highly secure facility, throughout his visit.

The statement also complained that the passports and luggage of the advance team had been thoroughly checked by uniformed police officers and not immigration officers.

It said that all the Malawian delegation’s luggage had been loaded on to Chakwera’s plane by South African military personnel and at the time of the scheduled departure of the plane at 3.30pm, there had been dozens of SA security personnel on the ground, who inspected the plane, its cargo and every passenger on entry.

South Africa’s efforts to get the Bushiris back to face trial may put further strain on relations with Malawi. The offences for which they have been charged are not extraditable in Malawi, it has been reported.

These “unacceptable and unsatisfactory” security procedures and the delay they caused had “breached diplomatic protocols commensurate with the dignity of President Chakwera’s office and person”. However, the Malawi government welcomed the SA government’s statement “exculpating President Chakwera from false allegations dominating the South African media that his presidential plane was used as a conduit for trafficking two Malawians wanted by South African authorities”.

But the statement complained that Pretoria had not acknowledged that its treatment of Chakwera on his departure was “improper and incongruous to the warm hospitality he received upon his arrival”.

The two Malawians who the statement referred to are wealthy Malawian TV pastor Shepherd Bushiri and his wife Mary, who skipped bail of R200,000 each last week while on theft, fraud and money-laundering charges in South Africa relating to an alleged R100-million investment scam.

Apart from the unproven allegations that Chakwera helped them escape, there has also been speculation that the intense security which his delegation was subjected to on Friday arose from suspicions by South African authorities that he would be smuggled on board Chakwera’s plane.

The passports of the Bushiris had been confiscated under bail conditions and South African government spokesperson Phumla Williams has publicly stated that they did not leave on Chakwera’s plane or through any other official port. However, Bushiri is known to have several passports — including a diplomatic one issued by the previous Malawi government. There is now speculation that he left South Africa by road, possibly via the Beit Bridge border post between SA and Zimbabwe which is notoriously porous. Malawian information minister Gospel Kazako told ENCA News on Friday that the Bushiris had been in Malawi since Wednesday, two days before Chakwera left SA.

In contrast to Malawi’s sharp criticism of Pretoria for the way it handled Chakwera’s departure, there is also some criticism of him in Malawi for failing to understand diplomatic protocol.

One Malawian observer said that the president’s advance party had arrived in South Africa at OR Tambo International Airport earlier last week and had been processed there by normal immigration authorities. The officials who accompanied Chakwera on his plane had been processed differently at Waterkloof Air Force Base. Then Chakwera had decided to take them all back home on his plane — possibly to save costs — which had caused bureaucratic and diplomatic complications for the South African authorities.

Daily Maverick reported on Monday that it was Malawian foreign minister Eisenhower Mkaka, a member of the advance party, who had provoked the row by causing a scene at Waterkloof Air Force Base when he was not allowed on Chakwera’s plane.

South Africa’s efforts to get the Bushiris back to face trial may put further strain on relations with Malawi. The offences for which they have been charged are not extraditable in Malawi, it has been reported.

But Williams said in a statement that South Africa had 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”.

A South African official told Daily Maverick that the SADC protocol would “trump” any bilateral bar which Malawi might have on extraditing the Bushiris. Daily Maverick