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President Jacob Zuma was “hopping mad” that the Gupta family wedding guests were allowed to land at Waterkloof Air Force Base and was demanding to know who gave permission, official sources said on Thursday.
They said Zuma was particularly angry as he knew he would be suspected of responsibility for the breach of protocol and security because of his close association with the Gupta family. Yet the official sources insisted he had had nothing to do with it.
Meanwhile, Performance, Monitoring and Evaluation Minister Collins Chabane said on Thursday that Zuma would not be attending the wedding as he had other commitments to attend to.
Government ministers are also on the guest list for the Gupta wedding, but Chabane denied a link between the ministers' attendance and the events that unfolded this week.
“I would say many people received invites to attend, and I don't think it has a direct line... [to] a minister attending and the events which surround the plane [landing] at Waterkloof.”
Briefing journalists on the fortnightly post-cabinet briefing, Chabane said high level investigations were already underway into how the Guptas were able to land a chartered flight at Waterkloof.
The Chief of State Protocol, Bruce Koloane, became the first head to roll on Thursday as the various government departments involved investigated the saga.
The Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) announced that Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane had placed Koloane “on compulsory leave with immediate effect to get to the bottom of the matter”.
It added that “The internal investigation is to start with immediate effect with other state organs.”
The sources said that the Department of Defence was expected to make a statement later on Thursday to explain how its commanding officers at Waterkloof Air Force Base gave permission for the aircraft carrying the private Gupta wedding guests to land at a military airport. They added that the SA National Police Service also had questions to answer about why they gave the guests a blue-light escort by their VIP unit, from the Waterkloof base to Sun City, where the wedding was taking place.
Other departments involved are the SA Revenue Service (Sars) which has announced that it was not contacted to come to Waterkloof to clear the wedding guests through customs – and Home Affairs, which has said it cleared the guests through immigration because they all had visas.
The Dirco statement implicitly exonerated both Zuma and Nkoana-Mashabane of any complicity in the decision to give permission for the aircraft to land – and pinned the blame squarely on Koloane.
“We also want to categorically state that no executive authority was granted either by Dirco or the Presidency for this civilian aircraft to land at Waterkloof air base. However it became clear that flight clearances were secured with the involvement of some officials hence this decision (to suspend Koloane).”
DA defence spokesman, David Maynier, suggested on Thursday that the government was making a scapegoat of Koloane.
“I have no doubt he played a role but I don’t buy the ‘rogue official’ line,” Maynier said.
The sources said Koloane had acted without the authority or the knowledge of the Presidency, his own minister or his director-general, to persuade the Waterkloof authorities to allow the aircraft to land.
They said he had worked with the Indian High Commission, which the Gupta family had used as “cover” to get permission to use Waterkloof – apparently on the basis that some of the passengers were senior officials of the provincial state of Uttar Pradesh.
The Times of India reported on Tuesday that the ministers aboard the aircraft included Uttar Pradesh urban development minister Azam Khan, parliamentary speaker Mata Prasad Pandey and public works minister Shivpal Singh Yadav.
The Gupta family had originally planned to land the guests at OR Tambo International Airport but had been unable to get all that they wanted there, it is understood. It was not explained if this referred to the fact that they would have had to clear customs at OR Tambo, which they did not do at Waterkloof.
The Gupta family then approached the Department of Defence to seek permission for the aircraft to land at Waterkloof, according to this account, but were turned down at high level.
Koloane then approached the Waterkloof base authorities directly. And because his job is to arrange clearance for foreign dignitaries to land at South African airports, the Waterkloof officials assumed he had got the necessary authority.
“Bruce Koloane’s hand is in everything,” one source said, adding that he had personally made all the arrangements for the aircraft to land.
The Dirco statement said it took the matter in a very serious light and had engaged “all senior officials involved” in an investigation of the incident over the past 24 hours.
There is legislation that provides for Sars to be notified when, in “particular circumstances”, an aircraft is given special permission to land at an airport not designated as an international airport and where there are ordinarily no customs officials.
Sars spokesman, Adrian Lackay, said in these cases “Sars customs is advised and requested beforehand to have a presence for such scheduled landings in order to clear goods and passengers on such aircraft”.
The service was investigating why its officials weren’t at Waterkloof as they should have been, Lackay said.
He could not immediately comment on what would be done about the possibility that the guests of the fabulously wealthy family had arrived bearing gifts on which they would not have paid customs duties.
Cope leader, Mosiuoa Lekota, himself a former minister of defence, said there was no way either Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula or Zuma himself would not have known about the landing.
Any country wanting such permission “would have to interact with the ministry”.
“The minister would have to give an instruction to the chief of the defence force and there would have to be preparations for customs to be there.
“There is simply no way that any plane can enter South African airspace without the air force knowing.”
The plane would only have been allowed to land if the instruction had come from above.
Under normal circumstances, the request would go through Dirco, which would have to tell the president so he could instruct the defence minister to make arrangements.
“One minister cannot instruct another minister, so the president would have to tell the minister of defence that such a request had been made.
“The fact that the commanders of the defence force said they knew nothing about it means the minister knew nothing. In the absence of the minister, it would have to be the president, who is the ultimate commander of the military.”
He said if it were possible for a plane to enter SA airspace and land at a military facility without permission, “it means South Africa could be attacked anytime”.
The ANC said the use of the air base for private guests “had nothing to do with President Jacob Zuma... hence our call to the Department of Defence to clarify...”. Maharaj said he had no comment on Lekota’s statement.
SA National Defence Union spokesman, Pikkie Greeff, said even though there were reportedly Indian government ministers aboard the plane, they could not have been given diplomatic status because they were not here on official business.