Gupta wedding: What is the plane truth?

There has been a storm of allegations, denials and rebuttals since the civilian Airbus laden with guests headed for the Gupta wedding touched down at Waterkloof Air Base last Tuesday. Some of the statements rapidly proved incorrect, others eventually appeared dubious, and some are wide open to interpretation.

Using leaked documents and public statements, the Mail & Guardian has analysed the various claims and tested their veracity. The results are mixed – and speak well neither of the government response nor the Indian high commission's conduct. The Gupta family did not cover themselves in glory either.

Read more
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How Gupta wedding storm turned into a PR blizzard

Why Waterkloof was used
Claim: Haranath Ghosh, a spokesperson for the Gupta wedding, ­initially told wire agency Sapa that the Waterkloof Air Force Base was used because the nearby Lanseria airport "could not accommodate the size of the jet chartered by the family".

Fact check: False. The plane was at the upper end of the size that can land at Lanseria, but could have done so. It could also have landed at OR Tambo airport.

Claim: The Indian High Commission on Thursday said it had requested the use of Waterkloof because the plane carried government dignitaries "and security is one of the most paramount concerns for us".

Fact check: False. OR Tambo airport has facilities rated for heads of state and other high-profile people who face threats on their lives, and Lanseria has in the past been adequately secured for high-profile landings.

Who requested permission for landing?
Claim: Ghosh said "the family" chartered the jet but permission for it to land was granted "by the Indian High Commission, and not the family". He reiterated that the family knew the air force base was used with the permission of the authorities: "The permissions were applied for and granted to the Indian High Commission and not the family. These rights can be applied for by any foreign embassy. Naturally, suitable protocol was used to receive and transport the foreign ministers to the wedding."

Fact check: Mostly true. Permission was applied for by the Indian high commission and not the Gupta family. But how did the Guptas know this? This was for the transportation of a "delegation visit" of government ministers from India, and the M&G is unaware of any members of the Gupta family who have been appointed as government ministers in India.

The role of the defence force
Claim: Ghosh: "The Gupta family reiterates that permission for [an] aircraft carrying foreign ministers and other dignitaries was obtained from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) beforehand. No aircraft is able to land anywhere in the world without obtaining prior permission."

Fact check: Mostly true. But the defence force officials who gave the ­go-ahead for the plane to land were clearly under the impression that the purpose of the flight was a "delegation visit", implying that the foreign ministers were visiting South Africa in their professional capacity.

Meanwhile, the government's line, broadly, is that the flight landing was "unauthorised".

In any event, said Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula on May 2, an initial request for help made by a Sahara "representative" was turned down "because it was not even formalised".

This was not a request for the SANDF to clear the landing – it appears to have been an attempt to nudge the defence force in the right direction, pre-empting a request for clearance "to be made" by the Indian high commission.

What is clear is that the SANDF duly received the request for the "VIP delegation visit" flight to land at Waterkloof, and approved it.

Cue outrage by the defence minister, who wasted no time in rescinding the landing clearance and marching the offending aircraft off the Waterkloof landing strip.

This was followed by a security cluster press briefing on May 3, during which Justice Minister Jeff Radebe addressed the media.

No official business
Claim: Radebe: "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."

Fact check: Open to interpretation. As reported in this newspaper, one state minister (the equivalent of an MEC) had an official invitation from his counterparts in the Free State. The Indian high commission says there was a formal meeting, and a memorandum of understanding was signed.

Does that qualify the entire Airbus of guests as a delegation? Perhaps, technically – but it is a dubious claim.

The date the landing request was made
Claim: Radebe: "The defence attaché of the Indian High Commission sent a request for aircraft clearance directly to the Air Force Command Unit within the SANDF on April 4."

Fact check: Mostly false. Our documents show the first request for the plane to land was sent in February. The letter referred to by Radebe was the second communiqué on the ­subject and it referred back to the first. It cannot be seen as a new application.

The international relations department's role
Claim: Mapisa-Nqakula: "The Waterkloof air command post received information from the state protocol section of the department of international relations and co-operation regarding an aircraft carrying state ministers from India and they should assist with clearance for them to land".

Fact check: Mostly false. Our documents appear to indicate that clearance for the aircraft was granted before anyone at the department of international relations was informed.

Our documents also show that the letter was 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.

An unauthorised landing
Claim: Radebe: The government is investigating the "unauthorised landing of a private plane at the Waterkloof Air Force Base".

Fact check: Mostly false. Our documents show that it was authorised.

An apparently standard clearance form, marked "RSA05 external clearance" was signed. It shows that both customs and immigration officials would be required to deal with the passengers.

Further, civilian clearances may not have been obtained and various officials may have acted outside the scope of their powers, but the landing itself was authorised.


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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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