The alibi of an official government-to-government visit apparently provided cover for the controversial landing of the Guptas' private plane filled with wedding guests at a military base.
The Mail & Guardian has evidence that at least one of the guests who attended Vega Gupta's wedding to Aakash Jahajgarhia in Sun City last week was formally, and conveniently, invited to South Africa by the Free State government.
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But there is little evidence that any official business was conducted on the trip. On the contrary, evidence suggests the official used the trip to attend the Gupta wedding – and little else.
In a letter dated early March, the Free State department of agriculture and rural development extended an open invitation to Shivpal Yadav, a minister in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, to visit the province.
Yadav was one of about 200 guests who attended the wedding after arriving in an Airbus that landed at the Waterkloof Air Force Base.
The timing of the invitation falls neatly between the date of the first application for the Gupta-chartered plane to land at Waterkloof and the date when the application was approved. Copied to the Indian high commission, it should have arrived when the high commission was processing the application for landing permission.
The Free State is now likely to be drawn into the controversy surrounding that landing, as the official cover it provided is drawn into the investigation of the use of the Waterkloof military base as a landing strip for the guests.
M&G Online revealed this week that the flight for the Gupta wedding, a private civilian affair, was cleared to land at Waterkloof by the South African National Defence Force. Permission was granted on the basis that the Airbus 330 was a "VIP" flight carrying "a delegation" from India, documents seen by the M&G show – despite the fact that the influential Gupta family, who have close ties to President Jacob Zuma and his family, publicly said they had chartered the plane for the wedding.
The timing of the letter from the Free State government, read in the context of the events leading up to the wedding, is suggestive, as is the fact that the "official" meeting was not publicised at all.
The short letter describes a close relationship between India and South Africa and then reads: "It is our endeavour to expand and strengthen these ties. I would like to cordially invite you to visit South Africa to explore potential areas of mutual co-operation in the areas of irrigation and public works."
Yadav, whose portfolio is public works, is then requested to supply an itinerary "to enable us to make the necessary arrangements for your visit".
The invitation is on the letterhead of the Free State agriculture department and signed on behalf of the then MEC, Mosebenzi Zwane.
The Free State government did not respond to questions this week and Yadav's office in India could not be reached.
But the Indian high commission confirmed an official visit.
Memorandum of intent
"The high commission of India can confirm that Mr Shivpal Singh Yadav … came on an official visit to South Africa at the invitation of the Free State government," wrote deputy high commissioner Armstrong Changsan in response to questions. "Minister Yadav is one of the senior-most ministers in the [Uttar Pradesh] government."
Changsan said that the visit included the signing of "a memorandum of intent for broad-based co-operation in the fields of agriculture, irrigation and economic development" between the two provincial governments.
Though the equivalent of an MEC, Yadav punches well above the weight of his official title – his family and political connections extend into national politics. No stranger to controversy, he has been cited as a possible future candidate in national elections. But Uttar Pradesh has no close relationship with the Free State and can lay claim to no singular expertise in irrigation or public works that the Free State would find particularly useful.
The invitation, in the eyes of the relatively low-level officials who ultimately cleared the Airbus to land, would have made the visit a formal one, allowing the use of diplomatic protocols rather than treating Yadav – and by extension anyone who travelled as part of his "delegation" – as a tourist.
That assumption is likely to be closely examined, along with the reasons for the letter. On Friday 3, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, in announcing an investigation into the saga, said: "Our particular concern is that the aircraft was carrying international passengers who do not fit the category of government officials or VIPs on official duty."
The Free State invitation is also of interest because of the known relationship between the province's premier, Ace Magashule, who is considered a close ally of Zuma, and the Gupta family.
Magashule's son, Tshepiso, is employed by Mabengela Investments, the directors of which include both Duduzane Zuma, a son of the president, and Rajesh "Tony" Gupta.
Minister's 'convenient' invitation raises questions
The timing of the Free State invitation is particularly curious considering the following:
Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said her department was approached by a representative of Sahara Computers, a Gupta-owned company, for assistance in getting permission for the Airbus to land.
The minister indicated that the subject of the meeting was a request that "was to be made" by the Indian high commission in South Africa for the Airbus to land.
This would mean the Sahara visit took place before the official request was made to the South African National Defence Force. However, the Sahara representative was turned away.
The Mail & Guardian's documents show that the first official request for permission for the Gupta-chartered Airbus to use Waterkloof was made in February. So, the visit by the Sahara official would have taken place before the February application.
Then, in March, the Free State provincial government extended an invitation to its Indian counterparts, asking them to visit the province officially, at a date most convenient to them.
In early April, documents show, the application for a "VIP" delegation to land at Waterkloof was made. On April 30, Vega Gupta's wedding guests stepped off the plane. Documents show that the plane would leave from Waterkloof on May 3, presumably with Shivpal Yadav, a minister in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, on board.
It remains unclear when Yadev would have found the time to visit the Free State, given that the final leg of the wedding took place late on the night of May 2.