Rotten and porous borders, as well as the Bushiris’ 10 passports, were discussed in a heated parliamentary debate, involving Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, into the escape of the two fraud accused.
This comes as a diplomatic row has erupted between South Africa and Malawi after the seven-hour delay in Friday’s departure of Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera’s plane, which Motsoaledi confirmed had been “scrutinised and searched by police” before it left.
The presidential delegation left on Friday from Waterkloof Airforce Base in Tshwane.
On Tuesday, Motsoaledi told the home affairs portfolio committee that Shepherd Bushiri, the leader of the Tshwane-headquartered Enlightened Christian Gathering church, and his wife, Mary Bushiri, were in the country illegally, and that each possessed five different passports.
Mostoaledi conceded that South Africa had “porous borders”, adding that home affairs was engaging the presidency for it to set up the “border management authority” and move entry-point functions to home affairs.
The stark admission followed the Bushiris skipping bail and fleeing to their home country of Malawi last week, with Shepherd calling the escape, in a recorded address, “a tactical withdrawal from South Africa to preserve our lives”, adding that he didn’t believe they would receive a fair trial.
Shepherd and Mary, together with three co-accused, face charges of fraud, theft and money-laundering valued at more than R106-million, which allegedly occurred from 2017 to 2019. Both received bail of R200 000 each.
Motsoaledi said on Tuesday that the Bushiris had applied for permanent residency in 2016 and swore under oath that they entered South Africa in 2015, although home affairs systems showed that the pair had been in the country since at least 2009. Motsoaledi added that the Bushiris registered companies from 2014 to 2016, despite having sworn under oath that they arrived only in 2015.
“This is important to mention at this juncture, because I should inform the committee and the public that Mr Bushiri should then have applied for a business visa, as is demanded by the law. But he never did so, meaning that the businesses he was running were not within the law.
“In 2016, the Bushiris applied for a permanent residency permit … and they declared under oath that they entered South Africa for the first time in 2015,” Motsoaledi said, adding the permits were “irregularly” granted in 2016.
“The stay of Mr and Mrs Bushiri in South Africa is not regular; it is full of anomalies. Therefore, we need to take back or revoke their permanent-residency status,” he said.
Motsoaledi detailed how the department of home affairs had, in August this year, issued the Bushiris with a notice for the pair to state reasons why their permits should not be revoked. The Bushiris, however, took this matter to court and were granted a suspension of the state’s action, pending the outcome of their criminal matters.
“That’s why we were very anxious about Bushiri being given bail because we believe that people who are flight risks can go through any of our porous borders, where we will not be able to see them,” he said.
“That was our worry which we presented to the police, [who] duly presented it to court. Unfortunately, they were not successful.”
Motsoaledi said the Bushiris had argued that they did not want to respond to home affairs’ notices so as not to incriminate themselves. Motsoaledi said this was disappointing to the department, because it viewed the revocation matter and the Bushiris’ criminal case as separate issues.
“Of course, chairperson and members of the committee, we were very upset with this ruling because we regarded the criminal cases the Hawks have with Mr Bushiri as not having to interfere with the processes within home affairs.”
Motsoaledi said the department had applied for leave to appeal the suspension decision, which was heard in Tshwane on Friday — the day when most of the drama occurred.
This included the visit of the Malawian president and his 23-person delegation to South Africa, which Motsoaledi said both governments had been arranging since August this year.
A diplomatic row has ensued after a stinging statement issued by Malawi’s foreign affairs ministry on Monday, in which South Africa was accused of maliciously delaying the departure of Chakwera and his delegation by seven hours.
“Chief among the causes of the delay was the South African government’s refusal to allow Malawi’s advance delegation to travel back home together with President Chakwera and his delegation, citing unspecified security reasons.
The South African authorities’ inexplicable refusal to let Malawi’s president leave with his advance team came despite being informed of the arrangement in advance, in conformity to a similar arrangement made in all countries President Chakwera has visited thus far,” the Malawian government said.
But Motsoaledi refuted this statement, saying the “advance delegation” had not arrived with the presidential party through Waterkloof Airforce Base, but had arrived through OR Tambo International Airport and should have left as such.
Motsoaledi said the presidential plane was also searched because Pretoria police, to whom the Bushiris had to report on Mondays and Fridays as part of their bail conditions, had not recorded the pair, and it was thought that they would try to sneak out with their compatriots’ transportation.
Motsoaledi reiterated the South African government’s stance that the Bushiris did not leave with the presidential plane. He said a warrant of arrest had been issued and it was the responsibility of the Malawian authorities, in terms of international law, to arrest the two fugitives.
Meanwhile, in a rare show of bipartisanship, MPs tore into Motsoaledi, with both the ANC’s Asnath Molekwa and the Democratic Alliance’s Angel Khanyile calling on footage from Waterkloof to be checked for the Bushiris’ possible escape through the base.
Molekwa called the escape “a very serious matter” and said a thorough investigation into the departure should commence. “Bushiri cannot leave the country without any trace,” Molekwa asserted.
Molekwa’s view was echoed by the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Leizel van der Merwe, who called South Africa’s immigration system “broken and rotten to the core”, saying the porous borders were ripe for criminal syndicates and terrorist groups to take advantage of.
Committee chairperson Bongani Bongo from the ANC said the preliminary report showed that the minister obviously did not know how the Bushiris had left, but that they would await a full and detailed report from other government departments before finalising a stance.