Riek Machar is the South Sudan rebel leader who has become the man nobody wants. But just as South Africa took on the responsibility of “looking after” former President Jean Bertrand Aristide from Haiti when he had nowhere else to go and Marc Ravalomanana, the deposed president of Madagascar who was barred from re-entering his country, the government has graciously agreed to host Machar as a “guest of the state”.
Machar is not being detained in South Africa as some have alleged, and is free to move around under the protection of South African security personnel, meet people, and is being provided accommodation and meals by the state.
But the South African government is under no illusions about Machar’s dodgy dealings as South Sudan’s most prominent rebel leader and former vice-president, and the destabilising role he continues to play in South Sudan, even from as far afield as South Africa. But with none of the governments in the east African region prepared to accept him on their soil, and even Nigeria for that matter, South Africa has been asked by governments in the region to assist by allowing him to stay in South Africa as a “guest of the government”.
What preceded Machar’s entry into South Africa was a July 8 bloody gun battle between his forces and those of South Sudan President Salva Kiir, which left hundreds dead.
Two days later, Kiir’s forces launched a massive assault on Machar’s positions, bombing his house and forcing him and his followers out of the capital city, Juba. Machar then fled South Sudan, first to the Congo, then Khartoum and ultimately South Africa.
Maintaining Machar in a safe house is also a way to keep his movements under wraps and minimise the trouble he is able to continue stirring up in South Sudan. Machar has been based in South Africa since October last year.
He had come to the country in his personal capacity for medical treatment, but after two weeks he told the government his life was under threat from men operating at the behest of Kiir, and asked for protection.
South Africa obliged, and from mid-November last year he was placed in a safe house.
While under government protection, Machar has attempted to contact former apartheid military personnel, from the then SA Defence Force (SADF), who now operate as contractors on the continent. The aim was to give military instructions to his forces in South Sudan. A number of SADF members have featured as senior military commanders in Machar’s rebel army.
One is the retired Colonel William Endley, who served as a security adviser to Machar until his detention about a year ago by the South Sudan government. Endley, who holds the honorary title of major-general in Machar’s rebel army, is being held in a notorious prison complex known as Blue House. It is also alleged that Machar has been in contact with a Joburg-based pilot from the former SADF who has been involved in dropping supplies to Machar’s forces in the then unity state between 2013 and last year.
The government has expressed its displeasure with Machar’s communication with senior members of his forces, as it claims he has been issuing military instructions, attempting to influence the situation on the ground. According to South African government sources, Machar has been appointing military governors in areas where he has influence. He is accused of treating South Africa as a base from which to continue his insurgency against the government of South Sudan, which won’t be tolerated.
Machar wants unlimited and unfettered access to whomever he wants to meet, but as commander and chief of a major rebel group, it is unlikely to be granted. However, he has been allowed to meet influential figures such as Fink Haysom, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for South Sudan, bishops from the east African region, former Botswana president Festus Mogae, chairperson of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation commission for the South Sudan peace agreement, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Government officials say it is possible to sight Machar entering a restaurant in South Africa as he has freedom of movement within the country. But while the government currently tolerates his presence, its challenge will be that Machar is obsessed with assuming the presidency of South Sudan.
He believes he is the person Nuer prophet Ngundeng Bong, who lived in the 1800s, prophesied would lead South Sudan to prosperity.
The prophesy was that the messiah of South Sudan would be left-handed, married to a white woman, with a gap between his front teeth. Machar has these attributes, and claims to have been visited by an angel in a dream who said he would one day be president. It is unlikely Machar will be a passive house guest in South Africa.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.