Documents reveal Gupta plane was cleared by SANDF after all

Documents revealed the now-infamous Gupta plane was cleared by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) after all, and that clearance for the flight to land was clearly given on the basis that the plane carried "central government ministers" from India.

While three SANDF officials were suspended in the wake of the furore, the documents seen by the Mail & Guardian showed the buck did not stop with them – and their superiors knew about the flight.

The defence force also denied knowledge of the flight's authorisation.

The documents revealed that the national defence force knew about plans to land a plane full of "central government ministers" from India at Waterkloof by late February – and that the landing was, in fact, authorised. It also shows that the process began with the defence attaché in the Indian high commissioner's office, and not the Indian high commissioner himself. 

The "central government ministers" turned out to be Vega Gupta's wedding guests. The bride is the niece of one of the Gupta brothers, a family connected to President Jacob Zuma and his family, who also own the New Age newspaper and Sahara Computers. The families are also in business together

Her private wedding guests landed at the Waterkloof Air Force Base, a military base and a national key point, this week, sparking a multidepartmental probe into the security breach.

But what remains unclear is whether or not the officials who gave the plane clearance were unofficially aware of who was on the flight – or whether they were incorrectly led to believe they were approving clearance for a flight full of Indian government officials.

Though the documents were provided by a source close to the matter, they have not been fully corroborated.

They showed that a request for permission to use the Waterkloof base was first made in late February – more than a month before the date claimed by the government – and the request did, in fact, go to the SANDF.

But two letters and one clearance form raises yet more questions about the already confused narrative around the Gupta plane saga, and seem to show that initial investigations and subsequent suspensions were overly hasty.

The first letter makes no attempt at subtlety. The subject line reads, in all capital letters: “APPROVAL FOR LANDING CHARTERED FLIGHT AT AFB, WATERKLOOF”.

It goes on to request “assistance in facilitating services of the AFB [airforce base] Waterkloof for landing and departure of a VIP flight on 30 April and 03 May respectively”, specifying that the Airbus 330-200 in question would be carrying “central government ministers".

Crucially, the letter is dated in the last week of February. On Friday, in a statement read by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, the government said the request was sent on April 4, more than a month later.

Radebe also said the letter was sent “directly to the Air Force Command Unit” of the SANDF. It is, in fact, addressed to the chief of defence foreign relations within the SANDF, an office that liaises more directly with top commanders and the ministry of defence.

Where the letter and the government statement on Friday do agree is that the request was sent by the then defence attaché of the Indian high commission in South Africa. But that contradicts the first statement, made on Thursday by the ministry of defence, which claimed the request came from the department of international relations and cooperation, after a request from the Indian high commission.

A second letter dated in the first week of April seems to more closely coincide with the one Radebe cited – but with important differences. Also from the Indian defence attaché (by then a new appointee), it is indeed addressed to the Air Command Unit, but is CCed to the SANDF’s foreign relations chief.

That letter, which refers to the first, provides details of the flight, including registration details of the aircraft and the number of expected passengers, and again specifies Waterkloof as the intended destination.

But while the second letter raises questions on how SANDF commanders could have been in the dark about the landing, it also raised questions as to how honest the Indian mission in South Africa was. The purpose of the flight is listed as “delegation visit”, which implies formal government business rather than a private jaunt.

The final new document seems to directly contradict Radebe’s statement that the landing of the plane was “unauthorised”. It appears to be a standard clearance form, marked “RSA05 External Clearance”, and shows that both customs and immigration officials would be required to deal with the passengers.

The government on Friday said no customs checks had been done at the airport because officials had not been aware any would be required, although staff were on hand to handle passport control.

The form specifies that parking and landing fees would not apply, and gives authority for the airbus to be refuelled. On Friday Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, after being asked whether there had been such a refuelling, said that prior arrangements would have been required.

“Refuelling is done against payment,” she said. “Any aircraft that lands at Waterkloof Airforce Base, before you refuel payment is made.”

It is not clear, from the documents the M&G has seen whether any such payment was made.

None of the documents show orders originating from the office of the president, communication from the Gupta family, or that any government ministers were involved in the decision to allow the landing at Waterkloof. While such orders or communication cannot be ruled out, the paper trail suggests that once the request was made by the Indian defence attaché, the matter was handled as such requests normally would be, without any need for intervention from up high.

The Gupta wedding plane timeline

April 30 (am): The plane in question, a Jet Airways Airbus A330, arrives at Waterkloof Air Force Base.

May 1: News breaks that the plane is carrying private citizens: guests of Vega Gutpa’s wedding, specifically.

May 2: International relations and cooperation department spokesperson Clayson Monyela says there is a need to investigate the circumstances in which clearance was given for the aircraft to land. The minister said Bruce Koloane, the chief of state protocol, should be suspended immediately. He says authority from the department or the presidency was not obtained, and the clearance to land was therefore granted by someone lower down.

South African Revenue Service officials visits Sun City to process the visitors in terms of customs regulations and the Gupta plane is moved to OR Tambo International Airport.

May 3: Government announces a multidepartmental investigation into the landing. It announces the suspension of officials and several arrests. It is also revealed that a company called S&M Transportation in Pretoria had illegally provided a fake police escort to the Gupta clan.

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe reiterates that no executive authority was given to the pilot to land.

“Government has no record of a note verbale from the Indian High Commission notifying Dirco of a visiting delegation requiring diplomatic assistance and aircraft clearance and landing rights,” said Radebe.

With the Gupta wedding now over, guests make their way to OR Tambo International Airport, where they are delayed for hours by home affairs officials. Home affairs says this is to ensure that the same number of people who entered the country on Tuesday are on the plane back to India.

May 5: The City Press reports allegations of sexual harassment and racism at the wedding. Atul Gupta says the family is “deeply upset” by the allegations. Cosatu considers referring the matter to the Equality Court if its members are willing to make statements.

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Phillip De Wet
Guest Author
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. 

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