National

Zuma fury over the Gupta's wedding jet scandal

Mmanaledi Mataboge, Glynnis Underhill, Phillip De Wet

Feathers are still flying over how the Gupta family managed to have a passenger plane land at an air force base.

The Guptas used the Indian high commissioner to get around Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula's decision not to allow them to use Waterkloof Air Force Base. (David Harrison, M&G)

President Jacob Zuma is said to have been so infuriated by the embarrassment caused by the security breach at the Waterkloof Air Force Base that, on the same day, he ordered Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula back from a meeting with her counterparts in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

On Tuesday, the Waterkloof military base was used as a landing base for a private plane filled with guests for the wedding of the niece of the politically connected Gupta brothers in Sun City this week.

The security breach has had repercussions beyond Waterkloof, both on the diplomatic front and within the Zuma administration.


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South Africa is planning to complain to the Indian government about its high commissioner's role in the saga. He was called to a meeting by International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in Pretoria on Thursday.

Also, the controversy has fuelled the "cold war" currently existing between the department of international relations and co-operation and the defence ministry, as a blame game between the two departments erupted.

Zuma's spokesperson Mac Maharaj said he did not want to respond to "rumours" about Zuma's anger. "There's an inter-departmental investigation going on and, as the presidency, we wouldn't want to comment while that investigation is going on," he said.

An investigation is under way to determine who was behind the breach of national security at Waterkloof and a preliminary probe has resulted in the suspension of chief of state protocol in the department of international relations and co-operation, Vusi Bruce Koloane. He is the one who communicated to the South African Air Force at Waterkloof that his department had agreed to the Indian high commissioner's request, according to a statement by Mapisa-Nqakula.

 

The groom arrives at the Sangeet celebrations accompanied by friends and family. (Supplied)

Angry public reaction
A range of emergency meetings was held on Wednesday after Mapisa-Nqakula's return from Ethiopia, in an effort to extinguish the fires amid an angry public reaction.

Mapisa-Nqakula was briefed by military generals and held a separate meeting with the national intelligence co-ordinating committee in Pretoria to discuss the security breach. This committee is responsible for co-ordinating the activities of all the country's intelligence agencies and collating the intelligence information received from them. It reports to Cabinet.

Zuma is also said to have held a telephonic meeting with Mapisa-Nqakula and Nkoana-Mashabane, and it was decided that the defence minister should address the nation and accept responsibility on behalf of the defence department.

Mapisa-Nqakula was supposed to tell the nation that her ministry would investigate the circumstances around the decision to grant that permission.

Said a senior government official source: "Denying that permission was granted means this country is not safe. That means a plane can land and soldiers won't do anything about it."

Mapisa-Nqakula was not in favour of that route and instead opted to release a statement on Thursday morning detailing what happened.

Mapisa-Nqakula had turned down a request by a Gupta family envoy – a representative of their company Sahara, according to the defence force – for approval to land at the military airport.

Then the Indian high commissioner to South Africa, Virendra Gupta, became instrumental in securing permission for the use of Waterkloof. The saga may well have diplomatic repercussions after the defence ministry confirmed that Virendra Gupta then bypassed the required process by going to Koloane.

Security breach
A source claimed that Mapisa-Nqakula had been phoned by Koloane on behalf of the high commissioner of India with a request for landing clearance at Waterkloof.

"The minister did not hesitate to say no. Waterkloof is a military base, and not for private use," said the source.

According to law, a plane may only land at a national key point such as Waterkloof once permission is granted by the defence minister. In a further security breach, the South African Revenue Service was not asked to provide customs officials for the guests' arrival.

"It had never been our expectation that attempts would then be made to find other avenues to try and secure the use of the air force base through the diplomatic channel at the international relations department," said a statement from Mapisa-Nqakula's office on Thursday.

"We called him to say we're not happy," said an international relations department source. "We believe he meddled [sic] the [South African] government with the details he provided for the application. We also communicated to him that we are removing that aircraft from Waterkloof Air Force Base."

 

Aakash gets down on bended knee to adorn Vega's finger with a ring during the Sagai.
(Supplied)

A follow-up meeting with the high commissioner and the international relations department was scheduled for May 3.

The Mail & Guardian has learnt that the high commissioner did not disclose all the information about who the passengers on the aircraft were.

Airport debacle
"They used the cover of the World Economic Forum on Africa taking place in Cape Town from May 8 to 10," said a government source. "The request said the delegation is coming to attend the forum but they've got other engagements in Johannesburg. It didn't spell out what that Johannesburg engagement is."

But, "it [the request for landing permission] definitely didn't say Bollywood stars and wedding guests", the government source said.

The two Gupta family spokespeople, Gary Naidoo and Haranath Ghosh, refused to respond to the M&G's questions on the Gupta's relationship with the Indian high commissioner and why the family, after being turned down by Mapisa-Nqakula, decided to use Virendra Gupta to secure the permission.

"As you are aware, the family was not involved in the arranging of the Waterkloof landing," responded Naidoo and Ghosh. "We have repeatedly stated that, and this has been confirmed by the government, yet media continue to involve us."

They referred the M&G to previous statements the family released saying that everything related to the landing in Waterkloof was done by the book.

"Please allow us the space to celebrate the nuptials with the dignity it deserves," their response said.

The Gupta airport debacle is also likely to cause a political backlash in Zuma's administration, with Mapisa-Nqakula said to be under severe pressure.

Cold war
The "cold war" between the international relations department and the defence ministry had flared up over the deployment of soldiers in the Central African Republic, the M&G was informed by government sources.

Said the government source: "This time heads are going to roll. It's a pity this happens just when the president was thinking about a reshuffle. So put the Central African Republic and this Gupta thing together and it doesn't look good for her (Mapisa-Nqakula)."

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe's strong reaction on Tuesday to the Guptas' use of the military airport made it clear someone needs to bite the dust.

"We demand that those who are responsible for granting access to land aircraft in our country also explain the basis upon which such permission was granted, particularly to land at Waterkloof Airforce Base," Mantashe said.

"Those who cannot account must be brought to book."

Mantashe was one of several senior ANC-led alliance leaders to express anger at the Guptas' Waterkloof landing and call on Mapisa-Nqakula to explain. While it's unprecedented for Mantashe to react in that openly fuming manner in a matter related to the Guptas, known friends of Zuma and his family, he was buoyed by information that Zuma was apparently in the dark.

"The reason Gwede went out that strongly is because he knows the president had nothing to do with this; he (Zuma) was not consulted," said a senior government official with knowledge of intimate details of the Waterkloof saga.

Preliminary investigation
"Gwede had spoken to the president before issuing that statement and he received the go-ahead from him to release the statement."

Zuma did not attend the Gupta wedding, a move seen by some as part of demonstrating his unhappiness. He had initially apparently planned to stop by before flying to Congo-Brazzaville to attend a contact group meeting on the Central African Republic.

On Thursday, the Times newspaper reported that 20 flying squad members, 10 flying squad cars, as many as 40 members of the police counter-assault team and VIP protection unit, as well as several armoured and specialised surveillance vehicles, were on hand to provide an escort for the wedding guests. Around 200 Indian guests have been flown in for the nuptials of Vega Gupta and Aakash Jahajgarhia.

On Thursday, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said his ministry's preliminary investigation found that the Gupta operation was riddled with "possible transgressions and violations by South African Police Service (SAPS) officials in the deployment of police resources, inter alia, vehicles to the event"

He said there was a possible abuse of "SAPS blue lights, with unconfirmed reports indicating that some of the vehicles used in transporting guests were not SAPS vehicles but private vehicles that were fitted with police blue lights".

Mthethwa also said there was the "possible moonlighting as police officers by certain private security individuals who were hired to provide security at the event".

The minister said he had instructed the commissioner of police, General Riah Phiyega, to launch an investigation to determine if "any SAPS prescripts were violated".

 

Vega Gupta and Aakash Jahajgarhia. (Supplied)

Unhappiness within the ANC
The Waterkloof incident is also likely to bring back to the fore the close relationship between Zuma and the Gupta family, something that once brought unhappiness within the ANC.

Concerns mounted after the Gupta family recently announced the addition to its media portfolio of a 24-hour news channel on the continent-wide DStv satellite platform, in addition to being given a new prime-time actuality slot on SABC.

The 24-hour news channel comes against the backdrop of controversy over free screenings by the broadcaster of business breakfast events hosted by the Gupta-owned New Age newspaper.

Adding to concern about the full extent of the Gupta's influence on South Africa's first family is the fact that one of their current empowerment partners is Zuma's son, Duduzane, who attended the Sun City wedding.

With Rajesh Gupta, Duduzane Zuma is a director of Mabengela Investments, and sits on the board of directors of JIC Mining Services with Gupta and others.

The aircraft hired by the Gupta family is part of the fleet of Jet Airways, an Indian carrier that only weeks ago announced a code-sharing arrangement with South African Airways.

Under the deal, Jet passengers will be carried between Mumbai and Johannesburg on regular SAA flights, and SAA customers can book onward flights to cities such as Hyderabad and Delhi on Jet flights.

Also on Thursday, Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane was not able to shed much light about who was involved or what processes were followed before guests of the Gupta family landed a chartered aircraft at the air force base Waterkloof.

On-going investigations
Chabane stepped into the Guptagate storm which broke on Tuesday morning, when he addressed the fortnight post-Cabinet briefing on Thursday. It's not every day that a Cabinet minister fields media questions following a meeting of the executive.

While Chabane couldn't answer a number of direct questions around the issue, either referring journalists to press statements already issued by the departments of Defence and International Relations or citing the on-going investigations, his sense of humour remained intact.

"I'm not sure if we should call them illegal immigrants, others would say they've been trafficked," he said laughing while responding to a journalist who referred to the Guptas guests as illegal immigrants.

Chabane described the Waterkloof incident as "unfortunate" and serious but added that the Cabinet did not discuss the matter because it was an "operational" matter between those who deal with protocol and those who deal with the management of air force base.

Chabane assured journalists that action will be taken against "anybody who played a critical role" in the matter. He said the process wouldn't take long because it's a straightforward matter.

He acknowledged that the government has been able to provide the media with adequate information and said that the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) will take responsibility to communicate on the matter.

"We are going to correct that, from here we will communicate with you, come to GCIS and we will see how far we can help to get the information you need. We will manage it from this side," he said.

 

Marquees adorned the sand at the Valley of the Waves for the Sagai celebrations. This is the official engagement where rings are swapped between bride and groom. (Supplied)

 

Permanent presence
Chabane said both he and Zuma had been invited to the wedding, but that they wouldn't attend.

With regards to the VIP protection offered to escort the Guptas, Chabane said he was not sure of the details, but understood that it was meant for transit. He was also not aware whether there were any dignitaries who qualified for this among the wedding guests. "If the delegation doesn't qualify in terms of protocol used, the expectation is that it should be withdrawn," he said.

Chabane said that all the passengers had applied for visas at the South African mission in India which is normal practice. "Our mission can confirm all the people had visas and passports which are valid,  therefore that would disqualify them from being determined illegal immigrants or any other definition which is beyond what is customarily accepted of people with valid passports and documents."

South African Revenue Service (Sars) spokesperson Adrian Lackay said that it does not have a permanent presence at the Waterkloof Air Force Base as it is not designated an international commercial airport.

"South African legislation makes provision that special permission can be granted for an aircraft to land at an airport not designated as an international airport in particular circumstances.

"In such instances Sars customs will be advised and requested beforehand to have a presence for such scheduled landings in order to clear goods and passengers on such aircraft," said Lackay.

"There were no customs officials present when the aircraft landed at Waterkloof air force base. Sars is investigating the circumstances that led to this situation." – Additional reporting by Andisiwe Makinana


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