A self-proclaimed prophet, who faces charges of money laundering and fraud related to £4 million, has triggered a diplomatic incident in South Africa after skipping bail and fleeing to Malawi.
Shepherd Bushiri and his wife Mary, who have both been charged, failed to report to a police station on Friday to meet their bail conditions.
Bushiri released a statement and appeared on television the next day saying they were now in their country of birth over 1,000 miles away despite apparently having no travel documents.
He presented a list of demands for him and his wife to return to South Africa, including that the police team and prosecutors investigating them be changed, accusing them of bias.
He also claimed there had been attempts to kill the couple since 2015 and demanded police protection.
South Africa responded by issuing an arrest warrant for the “two fugitives”, cancelled their bail and confiscated the £20,000 they put up as bond.
The couple have until Thursday to hand themselves in at a courthouse in the capital Pretoria.
Failing that, authorities will start confiscating the Bushiris’ properties, which include a £264,000 house in an exclusive estate on the outskirts of the city.
If the Bushiris don’t return, police will go to the Malawian government to “enforce the arrest warrant”, warned Katlego Mogale, spokeswoman for the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, a police unit that investigates high-profile crimes.
South African authorities still do not know how the Bushiris slipped out of the country after police said they took away their passports when they were released on bail.
However, a South African politician has alleged that the couple escaped on a plane carrying Malawian president Lazarus Chakwera as he returned from an official visit to South Africa last week.
The claim has been denied by both governments but was repeated by Bongani Bongo, former minister of state security.
“The nation is very worried and very angry with what has happened,” Mr Bongo said told the Power FM radio station.
“This is not a banana republic. We are running the rule of law.”
Malawi denied that the Bushiris were on the president’s plane and complained that Mr Chakwera’s departure on Friday from a military airbase near Pretoria was delayed for seven hours by South Africa for “unspecified security reasons”.
They added that South African security personnel searched Mr Chakwera’s plane and the entire delegation’s luggage. It is unknown why.
Aaron Motsoaledi, South Africa’s home affairs minister, raised the possibility that the Bushiris left through a land border into northern neighbour Zimbabwe and then onto Malawi.
Bushiri, 37, who is a pastor and businessman, came to prominence after founding the Enlightened Christian Gathering Church. It claims hundreds of thousands of followers in South Africa and has branched out to other African countries.
His end-of-year sermons at football stadiums often attract between 90,000 and 100,000 people.
Bushiri’s full church title is General Overseer Prophet Shepherd Bushiri, while he also sometimes calls himself “Major 1″. Keen on wearing slick suits, Bushiri makes no secret of his focus on wealth alongside God. According to the church, his “investment company” has interests in mining, real estate and the airline business. It is highlighted by the church as much as his preaching.
Bushiri said he ventured into business because he “does not believe the church must support his family”. Yet soliciting donations from followers is a key part of the church’s operations.
On one broadcast on his Prophetic Channel TV station, Bushiri sits next to a printer printing out bank documents that he said followers have sent him showing they’ve made donations to the church. Bushiri said he offers his “blessings” to the person once he sees their “proof of payment” come through.
“They are coming from different nations, different countries, people sending their proof of payments,” Bushiri said with his hands resting on several large piles of papers in an act of blessing them. “I’ve been printing them the whole day and I’ll be praying for them.”
In another televised sermon in a packed auditorium, Bushiri told congregants that “men of God should be rich”.
“I am also rich. In fact, I know what I’m doing,” he said as the congregants cheered, jumped out their seats and raised their hands in the air.