from MAVHUTO BANDA in Lilongwe & MTHULISI SIBANDA in Johannesburg
LILONGWE – THE diplomatic tangle sparked by the fugitive self-styled prophet, Shepherd Bushiri, and his wife, Mary, has plunged relations between the two countries into their lowest point in 26 years.
Nevertheless, if history is anything to go by, the parties that liberated these two countries have not always been comrades-in-arms.
Ties between the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), in power at independence in 1964, and the African National Congress (ANC), elected into power in South Africa 30 years later, have previously been tetchy.
These ructions date back to the era of the infamous apartheid in South Africa.
Hailed as the Warm Heart of Africa for its people’s kindness (albeit a stereotype), Malawi showed none of that solidarity under the presidency of Hastings Kamuzu Banda (now late).
Malawi earned notoriety as the only country in Africa to maintain diplomatic relations with the villainous apartheid regime.
This alienated Banda and Malawi from other African countries and Pan Africanist leaders who had just gained independence.
By his being the first black president ever to visit South Africa in 1971, and the first head of state of a foreign state to visit since the United Kingdom’s King George VI’s royal tour in 1947, Banda had openly defined the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU).
There were even calls, led by Tanzania, to expel the rebellious Malawi from the OAU.
Unlike other countries in the region, Malawi does not have a history of offering refuge to anti-apartheid activists at the height of the system.
In the early 1990s, Malawi and South Africa underwent some key transition periods to multi-party democracy, Malawi moving from one-party state and the latter from apartheid.
Relations between mired in mistrust due to Malawi’s past relationship with the apartheid government.
Ties only normalised in 1994 after both countries’ first multiparty democratic elections. ANC won the polls but MCP lost.
In 2008, the two governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding designed to enhance the relationship between the two countries through enhanced security cooperation.
MCP bounced back this year after an elections rerun.
Thus, when new Malawi President, Lazarus Chakwera, last week visited South Africa, the tour was anticipated to strengthen relations.
However, what has followed the Pretoria meeting between him and South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa, has been nothing short of a diplomatic disaster.
The visit coincided with the Bushiris skipping South Africa to evade trial for fraud, theft, and money laundering to the value of R102 million (about US$7,7 million).
The Bushiris resurfaced in their Malawi homeland claiming their life was in danger and chances of fair trial remote in South Africa.
There were even reports, since disputed by both governments, that the Bushiris fled in the same plane carrying Chakwera and his delegation.
On Monday, Malawi’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a strongly-worded statement criticizing the treatment of Chakwera by South African authorities upon the delegation’s return home.
“Improper” and “breached diplomatic protocols” and “unspecified security reasons” were some terms used to denounce the alleged ill-treatment.
The plane was delayed for seven hours, apparently to verify if the Bushiris were among the travelling contingent.
“The treatment President Chakwera was subjected to upon his departure was improper and incongruous to the warm hospitality he received upon his arrival,” Malawi’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated.
On Tuesday, South Africa’s Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on International Relations and Cooperation expressed concern at the potential effect the Bushiri escape might have on diplomatic relations between South Africa and Malawi.
Tandi Mahambehlala, the committee chairperson, urged relevant departments in both countries resolve the matter expeditiously.
“It cannot be appropriate for Mr Bushiri to pit regional trade partners against each other,” she said.
“Malawi and South Africa historically have strong bilateral and regional ties that ought to be strengthened and respected,” Mahambehlala.
– CAJ News