Koloane and the Waterkloof landing: So what if you help the Guptas?

After admitting to lying, name-dropping and abusing official channels while detailing his role in letting guests for the Gupta wedding land at an airport reserved for presidents and ministers, former chief of protocol and now South Africa’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Bruce Koloane, simply walked out of the Zondo commission and boarded a plane back to the Netherlands.

“I would like to admit that, indeed, I did what is now popularly known as name-dropping and used those [names] to nearly push officials who were supposed to process the flight clearance to do their job,” Koloane told the commission this week.

To recap: a private aircraft carrying about 200 guests to the wedding of Vega Gupta and Aakash Jahajgarhia was granted permission to land at Waterkloof Air Force Base in April 2013. Blue light brigades were then used to transport guests to the wedding venue at Sun City. Several high ranking politicians and government officials were in attendance for the nuptials.

An investigation into the landing by the justice, crime prevention, and security cluster in 2013, found high-profile officials, the Indian High Commission, Koloane and Lieutenant Colonel Christine Anderson responsible for the landing.

Charges were later dropped against Anderson, but Koloane pleaded guilty to three charges, including contravening the military defence code. Koloane is the only person who underwent disciplinary proceedings and was held responsible for the landing incident following the investigation.

On Monday, Koloane testified before the commission — chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo — that he could not remember having invoked the names of former president Jacob Zuma, former transport minister Ben Martins or Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula in an attempt to hasten approval for the Gupta family to land the plane at Waterkloof Air Force Base.

He also distanced himself from any wrongdoing related to the landing. He called it an “issue of pure misunderstanding”, referring to an email his personal assistant sent, where she wrote that he had “telephonically approved” the landing request. According to Koloane, the wording reflected a misunderstanding on her side or a miscommunication from his side.

The next day however, Koloane was singing a different tune. When confronted with audio recordings of telephonic conversations between himself and military officials that Zuma, Mapisa-Nqakula and Martins all knew of and approved the landing, Koloane conceded that he lied about their involvement to increase pressure for the landing to be approved.

In the recorded conversations, reference is made to “Number One”, understood to be Zuma, on whose instructions Koloane said he was acting.

With his memory firmly jogged, Koloane testified: “I indicated that at no stage did the minister of transport, defence or the president … in any way communicate with me either by themselves or through anyone in their offices. I abused the power of my office by calling officials who are processing and exerted pressure on them. But at no stage did I have control of diplomatic channels.”

At various intervals in his testimony, Koloane maintained that the Waterkloof saga had basically left the kind of psychological scars brought on by stress and guilt. He also used this as an explanation for some of his lapses in memory.

“There are some [memories] that you want to forget and close the chapter on and never ever get back to them in your life…” he explained.

The Waterkloof landing saga was a damning indictment on the security of the country’s national key points and an embarrassment for the South African National Air Force. The saga further highlighted the influence and power the Gupta family could wield in the absence of principled government officials.

So what happens now? After admitting to lying and name-dropping, what does this mean for the Zondo commission, Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA)? What of the department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco)?

Bulelwa Makeke of the NPA says this is a matter for the police to investigate. Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Makeke said if an “alleged perjury” relates to testimony being given before the commission then it would be prudent to wait for the judge [Zondo] to make a finding on the matter. Charging people before then would deter people from coming forward to testify before the commission. Criminal cases charges are only opened when the court hands down judgment and finds persons to have lied, Makeke said.

Since Dirco is his employer, the department must deal with Koloane and figure out if he should be the country’s representative internationally given his conduct at the Zondo commission, Lawson Naidoo of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) said.

His embarrassing climb-down before the Zondo commission about his responsibility in the saga calls into question his credibility as a witness and as a representative of the country, Naidoo said.

“Certainly one would expect that in the final report that Deputy Chief Justice Zondo produces, he will have to comment on the credibility of Mr Koloane and suggest what kind of follow up action would need to be taken,” Naidoo said.

“Zondo doesn’t have any enforcement responsibility so there was nothing the commission could do to prevent Koloane from walking out. He came. He gave testimony and he’s left. That responsibility I think lies with Dirco because he is a representative of government overseas and it is their responsibility to take appropriate action,” he added.

“I would say the primary responsibility lies with Hawks, not with the NPA at this stage. The NPA can’t do anything without receiving a docket from the Hawks. Technically, the NPA can’t do anything until it is presented by the Hawks with a warrant of arrest,” Naidoo said.

Dirco and the Hawks did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publishing. This article will be updated once they do.

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Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.

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