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Explainer: Who is Shepherd Bushiri and how did he escape?

Bushiri is one of hundreds, probably more, religious leaders in South Africa which operate, totally unregulated, under dubious circumstances.

By Verashni Pillay and Sarah Evans

Pastor and self-proclaimed prophet Shepherd Bushiri skipped the country last weekend, after being arrested on money laundering and fraud charges. Who is he, and why is he important?

Who is Bushiri?

He is part of a trend of megachurch leaders who can easily fill stadiums thanks to their popularity. They claim to perform massive miracles, and lead opulent lifestyles. While it’s a common phenomenon in African churches, it’s found across the world, particularly in the US. 

Also read: Our take: Bushiri’s escape and the case for regulation of SA churches

  • Bushiri heads up the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) evangelical church. 
  • He is a self-proclaimed prophet who has claimed, amongst other things, that he can cure HIV and that he can walk on air.
  • He is also one of the richest people in Africa, and in 2018, had an estimated wealth of $200 million 😯. 
  • He owns several businesses including a TV station which broadcasts his church services. 
  • Bushiri’s church shot to notoriety in December 2018 when three people were killed in a stampede at one of the ECG’s services. 

Credit: Facebook

Why’s he in the news now?

Bushiri, his wife and two others are accused of money laundering and fraud to the tune of over R100 million, in a so-called investment scheme. They have been engaged in high profile court proceedings. Bushiri and his wife were arrested in October but were let out on bail with strict conditions. In a shock move, the Bushiris fled South Africa on Saturday, November 14, creating a diplomatic uproar, and extradition proceedings are now underway to get the two to return to SA to face the courts. 

What? How?

It just so happened that Malawian president, Lazarus Chakwera, was in town in the same week that the Bushiris escaped. The Sunday Times dished the dirt in their lead story this last weekend, noting the suspicious timeline. 

Bushiri claimed he flew out of SA last week Wednesday, 11 November, in a social media post put out on Saturday. But we don’t know if that is true. All authorities know is that the couple absconded some time between Monday and Friday, as they showed up for their Monday bail appointment, but not their Friday one. Chakwera’s delegation is believed to have landed in SA on Thursday and departed on Friday… and there was a lengthy delay before the flight took off. 

The Sunday Times also notes the two are close. Bushiri is said to have funded Chakwera’s election campaign. Of course, all this is still in the “alleged” realm, so remember that nothing has been confirmed. But there is growing suspicion that the president’s visit was a sham, aimed at whisking the two fugitives away. Of course, the South African and Malawian governments have denied this, but again, the Sunday Times reports, it’s caused something of a diplomatic storm between the two countries, with President Cyril Ramaphosa reportedly being furious about how the Bushiris managed to escape. 

But home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi reportedly told a committee in Parliament on Tuesday that the Hawks had searched Chakwera’s plane twice to make sure the Bushiris were not on board.

Credit: Facebook

Why were they given bail in the first place?

Many people have questioned why the Bushiris were granted bail at all. But it is important to remember that, in SA, bail is not supposed to punish people. It is intended to make sure that someone accused of a crime will show up for their court case. That’s why bail money typically has to be paid to the state. 

They had to pay R200 000 each in order to get bail, and were told that they’d have to hand over the deeds to their Centurion mansion if they tried to leave the country. Clearly, they didn’t value the property, worth over R5-million, that much. 😏

There were also other measures put in place. People accused of crimes who could be a flight risk, and like the Bushiris, usually have to hand over their passports.

However, it seems Bushiri had more than one passport which he had to hand over, including a Malawian diplomatic passport – typically something that only dignitaries or high ranking government officials are entitled to. We know. Must be nice. 

The Bushiris’ bail was revoked on Monday and will have to appear in court on November 19 or risk having their South African residency revoked too.

What now?

In an extraordinary request for someone accused of a crime, Bushiri has reportedly said he is only prepared to cooperate with the SA justice system if the government agrees to ensure he and his wife’s safety, guarantees that their bail would not be revoked and that the investigating officers in their case be removed and arrested. 

Someone needs to tell Bushiri that he doesn’t really have a choice in the matter – people accused of crimes have to face their trials. Not doing so is another criminal offence.

Meanwhile, government is investigating just how the Bushiri’s were able to leave SA. Motsoaledi also said on Thursday that according to home affairs’ border monitoring systems, there was no record of the Bushiris leaving the country, officially, deepening the mystery of how the Bushiris made their great escape.