Who will take the fall for Guptagate?

Indian high commissioner Virendra Gupta. (Supplied)

Indian high commissioner Virendra Gupta. (Supplied)

As investigations into how the Gupta family’s wedding entourage was allowed to land at the Waterkloof military base last week continue, with an outcome expected at the end of this week, attention has moved from Sun City to the corridors of power, as the country looks to its leaders for someone who will take the fall.

Weekend reports suggest Indian high commissioner Virendra Gupta might be blamed for the diplomatic scandal.

Meanwhile, analysts seem convinced that President Jacob Zuma will remain unharmed politically,  despite his close relationship with the Gupta family.

As the Mail & Guardian reported on Friday, the Gupta family seems safe from prosecution for now – in spite of former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema’s call to charge them with treason

For political analyst and research fellow at the Helen Suzman Foundation Aubrey Matshiqi, Zuma’s relationship with the Guptas will not hurt him politically, unless the ANC becomes collateral damage at the polls. This despite  irritation shown by alliance members and some in the ANC at the closeness between the two families

“But it does mean that history might judge the legacy of his presidency more harshly,” Matshiqi said.

Zuma issued a statement on Friday night, in the wake of a press conference that morning by his security cluster, promising that he was on top of the various investigations into the plane landing.

Blame shifted
While Zuma has not publicly distanced himself from the Gupta family, he and his ministers have shifted the blame to those lower down the rungs, responsible for protocol and procedure.

The Indian commissioner maintained last week that he was merely following protocol during his involvement in the landing of the plane, and a source close to him told the M&G that Virendra Gupta was merely the “middle-man”.

Central to the rumours that Gupta will take the fall for the incident is the question: did he act on the presumption that the plane carried an Indian diplomatic mission, or did he know that the passengers were part of a private party?

A chartered Gupta family jet made an unauthorised landing at the Waterkloof Air Force Base, a national key point, on Tuesday. It was carrying guests to the wedding of Vega Gupta (23) and Aakash Jahajgarhia.
The jet was moved off the base on Thursday afternoon, amid widespread criticism.

Whether Virendra Gupta is actually a Gupta of the infamous kind is unclear, although he appears to be unconnected to any of the family’s businesses, and a source says he is annoyed by the question. He is a seasoned diplomat, having served as the Indian high commissioner to Spain and Dar es Salaam. He also served as a rapporteur for the United Nations special committee against apartheid.

Under his watch, relations and trade between the two countries have warmed, and he is said to be agnostic to the Gupta family’s status in South Africa. If he is recalled by his own government, that would be one thing, but for the South Africans to request his removal could see relations between the two country take a frosty turn.

'Diplomatic disaster'
President Jacob Zuma sought to ease diplomatic tensions in a statement on Friday evening. He urged that the investigations into the landing should not negatively affect the warm relationship between South Africa and India “which go back to the very beginning of our respective struggles against colonialism and apartheid”.

Virendra Gupta was called to a meeting with the department of international relations and cooperation soon after it came to learn of the Waterkloof landing.

Despite rumours that he will be recalled, this is an unlikely scenario, and would be a “diplomatic disaster” for South Africa, the source said.

In a statement, the Gupta family said they were“assured” by the Indian High Commission that proper processes had been followed in granting the request to land. It is possible that after the representative from Gupta-owned Sahara Computers’ request to land at Waterkloof was denied by the South African National Defence Force; that an attempt was made to paint the flight as a mere diplomatic mission.

Said the source: “It’s possible that someone from India, say, the foreign affairs ministry, requested help from the Indian High Commission to arrange for the plane to land at Waterkloof. It’s possible they said this plane was carrying Indian dignitaries, and it would not have been out of step for the commissioner to make a request on this basis.”

It is not clear whether or not the high commission were acting under the understanding that this was a plane full of passengers arriving in their private capacity. But it appears, from the Gupta’s statement, that the successful request for help was relayed back to the family, and not to the Indian government.

Suspensions and questions
And indeed, a plane carrying a handful of low-flying Indian government officials and their entourage landed at Waterkloof last week. But whether or not permission was granted for the landing, by whom, and with the knowledge that this was a delegation of Zuma’s influential friends, remains unknown.

From a press briefing hosted by the security cluster on Friday, it is clear that a request for the plane to land came from the high commission to the department of international relations' Bruce Koloane, the chief of state protocol who has been summarily suspended. It was Koloane who allegedly contacted the air force base at Waterkloof.

A statement from Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said: “The office of the chief of the state protocol dealt with the request from the Indian High Commissioner directly to the Air Force Base without consultation with the chief of the SANDF, the chief of the air force and the ministry." 

Five officials have been suspended, including Koloane, and a further three have been arrested. An investigation by various departments is underway, with an outcome expected this Friday.

The family, meanwhile, remains apologetic about the entire affair.

For Matshiqi, anger within the ruling alliance about the Gupta’s influence has been brewing for some time. “But this time, it’s as if the Guptas went too far. Not only did they compromise the integrity of the ANC and Zuma, but they compromised the integrity of the country,” he said. 

But the source at the Indian High Commission said this week that this influence did not extend to Virendra Gupta. 

"The commissioner treats the Guptas cordially but he’s agnostic about their status. He would not have gone to bat for that family, but for him to be asked to assist a group of travelling Indian dignitaries with landing at Waterkloof would have been another day at the office," the source said. 

The politically-connected Guptas own the New Age newspaper and Sahara Computers, along with several other businesses.

The Indian High Commissioner, through his office, was unable to take questions. The M&G was unable to reach the Indian foreign affairs ministry. 

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics.  Read more from Sarah Evans

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