/ 5 February 2015

‘Guptas? Never heard of them’

Lieutenant Colonel Stephan van Zyl
Lieutenant Colonel Stephan van Zyl

Colonel Maritz Visser was appointed “meeter and greeter” of high-ranking VIP and state officials when the wealthy Gupta family’s wedding plane landed at Waterkloof air force base in Pretoria on April 30 2013. 

Prior to the landing, Visser asked the person in charge of receiving the delegation to point out the minister or the highly ranked state delegates on the aircraft. 

“But … nobody was pointed out as being a highly ranked state official or the minister and … I did not greet anybody in that sense,” Visser said.

Visser, the support co-ordinator at the air base, was testifying at the South African National Defence Force’s closed preliminary investigation held in October 2013 to ascertain whether officials accused of colluding in the landing could be prosecuted.

Transcripts of the preliminary investigation seen by the Mail & Guardian show that witnesses called to testify had not heard of the Gupta family before the plane landed. 

Yet an official RSA05 clearance – usually reserved for military and diplomatic flights to South Africa – was granted for the plane to land at Waterkloof after officials were misled into believing it was an official flight and the passengers were an “Indian delegation”. Instead, 217 guests had been flown over from India by the Gupta family to attend the lavish nuptials of Vega Gupta to Aakash Jahajgarhia at Sun City.

Charges against Lieutenants Colonel Christine Anderson and Stephan van Zyl were withdrawn two weeks ago. 

Civil claims
Advocate Pikkie Greeff, national secretary of the South African National Defence Union, said Anderson and Van Zyl now intend to launch substantial civil claims against the government. 

At the preliminary investigation, it emerged that seven helicopters had also landed at Waterkloof, with some authorised to transport wedding guests to Sun City.

“Van Zyl is willing to testify that the next morning he was instructed to cancel the helicopters that were going to take [President Jacob] Zuma and his entourage to Sun City,” said Greeff.

Zuma is alleged to have cancelled his attendance at the wedding after the story broke, but denied in Parliament claims that he was behind the security breach. He said he had no prior knowledge of the Gupta charter plane.

Mac Maharaj, spokesperson for the presidency, asked for questions to be sent to him but had not responded at the time of going to print.

‘Military organisation’
The investigation testimony raises questions about why it took 15 months for the military to clear Anderson and Van Zyl, Greef said.

It emerged during the preliminary investigation that Visser had chatted to Anderson while they waited for the Gupta plane  to land at the base. 

“And the opinion was held by Colonel Anderson that this aircraft should not have come to the base, but it should have been regarded as a commercial flight,” said Visser. 

Explaining why he had not complained after Anderson had expressed this opinion, Visser told the prosecutor, Lieutenant Colonel MI Mogale, that he should remember “that we are a military organisation”.

“It is surely not in my power [or hers] to stop an aircraft from coming to the base if it has been arranged and there is a signal that authorises the landing,” he said.

Not everybody in the military was aware of the Gupta family’s rise in prominence through a network of businesses involving President Jacob Zuma’s children, extended family and government. 

Unaware of the Guptas
Brigadier General Leslie Lombard, officer commanding the air force command post at headquarters, said a fellow officer informed him about reports that “the Guptas had landed”. 

“Not being a follower of popular media, my response … was: ‘Who are they?'” said Lombard. “He then said to me it is some family from India or somewhere. I was aware of that name for the first time.”

Lombard said the chief of the air force, Lieutenant General Fabian “Zakes” Msimang, had asked him to draft a report on the security breach.

Warrant Officer Thabo Ntshisi of the air force command post, who was accused with Anderson and Van Zyl of colluding in the landing before charges against him were dropped, gave input for the report.

Lombard said Ntshisi had several conversations with Bruce Koloane, former chief of state protocol at the department of international relations and co-operation. Koloane informed Ntshisi the flight was “sensitive” and an official visit. 

Ntshisi passed this information and the request on to Van Zyl; the same day, an email was received from Koloane’s office confirming he had approved the request for flight clearance and landing at Waterkloof.

Van Zyl then signed and sent out a document giving the plan approved RSA05 clearance, said Lombard. 

‘Official’ landing
Anderson had been informed by Koloane that the landing was “official”. Lombard said he was satisfied due process had been followed; he was subsequently placed on “special leave” and not allowed access to any investigations.

Prior to the investigation, Koloane was demoted from his post after he was found guilty by an inter-ministerial investigation of having used Zuma’s name to illegally authorise the controversial landing. Last year he was promoted as South Africa’s ambassador to the Netherlands.

The preliminary investigation revealed that Msimang only learnt about the plane landing “after it had happened. I received a phone call; someone alerted me: ‘Have you heard what is in the news?'” Msimang told the investigation.

He then asked officials to make sure the aircraft left the air base.

Witness Lieutenant Colonel Daisy Mdluli, officer in charge of movements control at Waterkloof, said Anderson had held a meeting with “an Indian man” and Koloane a week before the plane landed. She had not been informed about what was discussed at the meeting.

VIP flight
However, Anderson had later held a briefing to inform all the members of movements control that an aircraft would be arriving, and a notice had been placed on the board.

Brigadier General Tebogo Samuel Madumane, the officer commanding the base, said Anderson had informed him prior to the landing that there was a VIP flight from India, with ministers on board, and some of the passengers would be attending a Gupta wedding.

“That name was mentioned; it did not mean anything to me,” he said.

Madumane told the judge, Colonel CJ Taljaard, he wanted to correct the perception that it had been an “unauthorised” landing. “I have a copy of the RSA05 here with me.”

When the preliminary hearing reconvened, Mogale said he had called all the witnesses the state intended to call. “I submitted that, based on their evidence, there is no need for further witnesses. It will just be a wasteful  expenditure.”