South Sudan’s rebel leader Riek Machar. Picture: Reuters
SHANNON EBRAHIM

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, our 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 the country's security personnel, meet people, and is being provided with accommodation and meals by the state.

But the South African government is under no illusions about Machar’s shady 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 a field 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 as a “guest of the government.”

What preceded Machar’s entry into South Africa was a July 8 bloody gun battle between Machar’s 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 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 last October. He had come to the country in his personal capacity for medical treatment. But after two weeks he told the government that 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 SANDF who now operate as contractors on the continent. The objective was to give military instructions to his forces in South Sudan. A number of SANDF members have featured as senior military commanders in Machar’s rebel army.

One such individual is retired Colonel William Endley, who has 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 Johannesburg-based pilot from the former SANDF who has been involved in dropping supplies to Machar’s forces in Unity state between 2013 and 2016.

The South African 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 also been appointing military governors in areas where he has influence. Machar 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, unfettered access to whomever he wants to meet, but as commander and chief of a major rebel group, it is unlikely to be granted. But Machar 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 site Machar entering a restaurant in South Africa as he has freedom of movement.

But while the South African government tolerates the presence of Machar, its challenge will be that he is obsessed with assuming the presidency of South Sudan. Machar 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 would be left handed, married to a white woman, and with a gap between his front teeth. Machar has those attributes, and claims to have been visited by an angel in a dream who said he would one day be president of his country.

It is unlikely that Machar will be a passive house guest in South Africa.