South Africa recently had to make a very uncomfortable political decision. It either had to seriously ruin its historical relationship with its African neighbour and comrade, Frelimo, by extraditing the former Mozambican finance minister and MP, Manuel Chang, to the United States, or do exactly the opposite — please Frelimo but irritate the US and disappoint the majority of Mozambicans — who totally distrust the ruling party’s willingness and honesty to fight corruption, especially in this particular high-level and politically sensitive case.
But whatever the implications of such a decision are or will be for the future of South African diplomatic relations with the two countries, the former minister of justice and correctional services, Michael Masutha, had already decided: the winner was Mozambique.
While South Africans and the world were focused on the developments of the Zondo commission into state capture domestically, and the country was still recovering from the “political balabaza” of the May election outcome, Masutha was deliberating in favour of extraditing the Frelimo cadre to face “justice” back at home, rather than in the US.
Both countries had filed extradition requests in South Africa for the very same person. First the Americans, under an existing US-SA extradition treaty and later the Mozambicans, under the South African Development Community (SADC) protocol on extradition.
But what is this case actually about? This Hollywood-like corruption case was first made public early in 2016 when The Wall Street Journal revealed that the Mozambican government had a hidden debt that was later confirmed to amount to $2-billion. At the time this constituted 18% of the country’s gross domestic product. After strong rejections and apparent inertia, firstly to accept and secondly to investigate this case, Frelimo was forced to accept an independent audit into state-guaranteed loans for three companies. Among other findings, the audit established that out of the $2-billion debt, $500-million was nowhere to be found. It was also concluded that the entire process involving these loans was unconstitutional. Although a case was opened by Mozambique’s attorney general when these findings were revealed, no one was arrested then.
Things began to emerge into the light when on December 29 last year, at the request of US judicial authorities, Chang, the head of the finance portfolio when these loans were contracted, was arrested at OR Tambo International Airport, in transit to Dubai. Chang and others — allegedly more Mozambicans — are wanted by the US justice department for conspiring to commit fraud, among other serious criminal allegations.
After a relatively long court process, the Kempton Park magistrate’s court concluded that Chang was extraditable both to the US (the first applicant) and to Mozambique (the second applicant). But because under South African legislation the final say had to come from the minister of justice, it was Masutha who sealed the fate of Chang.
In deciding in favour of extradition to Mozambique rather than the US, Masutha considered the nationality of the accused; the place where the offences were committed; the offended country (Mozambique); and the request by Chang himself to be sent back home and not to face justice in the US.
One can only speculate whether Masutha’s decision was based on achieving justice or servicing a historical comradeship and, more broadly, the South African pan-Africanist agenda. Or perhaps Masutha was merely acting in the interest of the South African economy and national security.
While a jail cell and court case await Chang in the US, where the Americans say they have enough evidence against him — more than 1 000 pages and audio recordings — it is widely known that, because of his prevailing immunity as an MP in Mozambique, even after years of alleged investigation by the Mozambican authorities, Chang cannot be arrested at home.
In such a situation Masutha’s decision is questionable, since he knew Chang would be happily digesting Mozambique’s delicious seafood immediately after crossing the border. This would definitely result in embarrassment for the South African justice system in a context where the country is trying to show a strong intolerance for corruption.
But it is undeniable that extraditing an African comrade to face justice in the US and not in Africa, apart from seriously embarrassing “a comrade country”, wouldn’t be well interpreted by other African countries with whom South Africa needs to have a good relationship.
South Africa would be considered by its peers, especially by those who do not usually show a strong stand against corruption, as being lapdogs of American imperialism, rather than pursuing a pan-Africanist agenda, regardless of what the case was about. It’s probably this logic that governed South Africa’s attitude towards former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who was wanted by the International Criminal Court, and former Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe, who walked free when she was expected to be arrested by the authorities for assault.
Masutha’s decision may also reflect an internal security concern of South Africa. Mozambique is, among all its neighbouring countries, the one which poses the most challenges to South Africa’s internal security because of its geographic location on the Indian Ocean, its internal political dynamics and conflicts, and its fragile state capacities.
When this case was first revealed, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the US and other bilateral partners of Mozambique immediately suspended their much-needed contributions to the country’s budget — which represented about a quarter of it — pushing the country close to bankruptcy.
Allowing the Americans to be in possession of the so-called “mastermind” of this case would have had serious implications for Frelimo, because of the information which would potentially have been exposed to the public. This would likely have led to a serious crisis within Frelimo, the government and the state. A stable Frelimo is a stable Mozambique, which poses less of a threat to South Africa.
In the end, if the Americans do not appeal this decision, Chang will certainly go back home and South Africa’s services to justice will be judged by how the comrades on the other side deal with his case: Chang will receive real justice, a slap on the wrist or enjoy total impunity.
Fredson Guilenge works for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Johannesburg. These are his own views