SA journo’s ordeal in pursuit of Bushiri: City Press reporter detained in Malawi

By Ntombizodzwa Makhoba

“Sorry, we will not be stamping your passport,” said the petite young immigration officer in command.

She was letting me know, in a polite way, that there would be no proof that I was ever in Malawi, nor of my 24 hours held at Chileka Police Station in Blantyre.

It was drizzling when I arrived at Chileka International Airport.

A police officer took my passport and asked me if I was Ntombizodwa Makhoba from South Africa. I said yes and was told to follow him.

I knew something wasn’t right. My suspicions were raised further when he and his colleague asked if I was booked into the local Protea Hotel – even the person I’d arranged to collect me from the airport didn’t know that.

I asked what was wrong, and they told me to wait and said I was not allowed to ask questions.

The only word I recognised in their conversations in Chichewa was a name – Bushiri, which they kept repeating.

I asked if I could make a call.

“We don’t have airtime,” was the response. “Anyway, you’re going to see your family tomorrow. We got instructions from above. You are going to be kept at a police station for a night and we’ll be deporting you on the first flight to South Africa tomorrow.”

The drive to Chileka Police Station is less than 1km, but felt far longer in a police van on the gravel road.

“This is where you are going to spend the night,” said the woman immigration officer.

The tiny police station was staffed by two men in their early thirties. I wondered how I would manage a night there, and the possibility of being raped crossed my mind.

I still had no clue as to why I was being detained – until I saw the book where all the suspects’ names and charges were recorded.

My name was already there. Alongside it, someone had written I was being detained for “safety reasons”.

I needed to call my editor and my family.

“Please bring all your belongings, including your laptop and money, we need to put them in a locker,” said a police officer who was wearing khaki camouflage.

Finally, one said I could use his phone. I gave him money for airtime.

I was told there was no extra holding cell, but that I could sleep on one of the benches in the charge office.

The first call I made was to my news editor, who was stunned by what I told her.

And while she was contacting the department of international relations and cooperation’s spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya for help, the officer’s phone kept ringing off the hook as my editor and family called to find out if I was safe.

The kind police officer knocked off for the day and was replaced by another, who demanded that I sit on the floor – in accordance with their “rules”.

I received a call from an official at the SA High Commission in Lilongwe, who told me the police station was a safer bet than my hotel.

He said I’d been followed by two people from OR Tambo International Airport and that they had my photograph and passport number.

“Once you leave where you are, you are not safe. Please ensure you are escorted when you go to the bathroom,” he insisted.

Two Malawian journalists who visited me and brought me food accompanied me to the pit latrines. At 10pm, a police officer offered me a mattress and a duvet, but I did not sleep.

The following morning, the same van came to take me back to the airport. I was taken to an immigration officer, who handed back my passport.

I still do not know what crime I was accused of. I read in Malawian newspapers last week that I refused to produce “relevant” documents – which is false – and did not “seek clearance from relevant authorities”.

After I arrived home, people from Malawi began phoning me, claiming to be government officials and demanding to know whether it was true that I was investigating one of their country’s famous prophets, referring to Shepherd Bushiri.

Three of my sources in that country were detained and taken in for questioning.

A senior Malawian journalist to whom I had spoken received threatening calls and was ordered to stay away from the “prophet’s business”.

A former journalist to whom I had spoken sent this message: “We were also detained … they held my phone and all identity documents.”

I asked a journalist who came to see me at the police station to translate a statement for me from the police officers because I could not understand Chichewa.

He wrote: “The issue is that immigration officers received information from Bushiri that a certain journalist was coming to investigate him, and he told the officers to detain the journalist and she must be deported back. The officers said the journalist was followed by Bushiri’s men on the plane, and one of them gave them a signal for the journalist to be arrested at Chileka airport.”

Another source who was detained says people from the prophet’s inner circle promised him a “fortune” to not talk to the media.

He is now in fear for his life.