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Shut OR Tambo for us - Guptas

Published May 5, 2013

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Johannesburg - The Gupta family demanded that part of OR Tambo International Airport – the busiest on the continent – be shut down and be exclusively designated for their wedding guests.

Their request three months ago to the Airports Company SA (Acsa) came after Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula refused to grant their chartered jet the right to land at the Waterkloof Air Force Base on Tuesday.

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Their guests’ jet eventually landed at the base after being controversially granted illegal authorisation, sparking a diplomatic and political crisis.

The Guptas had asked for special treatment for 300 guests due to attend the wedding of Vega Gupta, their niece, and her groom Aakash Jahajgarhia. But just over 200 came through the air force base.

The request for preferential VIP treatment included that:

* Part of the international arrivals reception area of the airport be shut down for their guests’ exclusive use.

* The guests’ luggage be delivered speedily and not go through baggage handling.

* The customs processes be fast-tracked.

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* A welcoming team, with traditional dancers, greet their guests.

* They have a special immigration queue.

The Guptas requested that Acsa – the agency running commercial airports across the country – accede to their “VIP facilitation” demand during OR Tambo’s peak hour period as they were planning to arrive at 7.30am.

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The requests were discussed at a meeting in February at the Southern Sun Hotel at the airport, attended by Acsa acting managing director Bongani Maseko and Transport Minister Ben Martins, the suspended chief of protocol of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation Bruce Koloane and a Gupta representative.

The details of the meeting were confirmed by four independent officials who could not be named because of the sensitivity and the controversy sparked by the Gupta matter.

Martins’s spokesman, Tiyani Rikhotso, confirmed that “the minister was approached informally by the Gupta family who requested to have access to” the airport.

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“The minister referred them to Acsa as this would be in the course of Acsa’s business. After a discussion between Acsa and the Gupta family, Acsa briefed the minister.

“The minister and Acsa agreed that the Gupta family would not be given any preferential or special treatment should they wish to use the airport for whatever purpose.

“The same position was conveyed to the Gupta family by both the minister and the acting (managing director) of Acsa, Bongani Maseko. The minister and Acsa have always maintained the same position on the matter and this has not changed,” Rikhotso said yesterday. Maseko said he stood by Martins’s statement.

The Sunday Independent understands that the Gupta family representative – whose name could not be confirmed – was told that if they wanted a quiet airport they should consider using the Pilanesberg International Airport, in North West, which is 10 minutes away from the Sun City wedding venue.

But this seemed unacceptable to the Guptas.

This was when Koloane – according to a government official with intimate knowledge of the meeting but who refused to be named because he was not the authorised spokesperson – came forward to say that the Department of International Relations could assist the Guptas.

This could not be confirmed independently. Koloane, a deputy director-general in the department, refused to comment yesterday.

But it is believed that Koloane was brought down by his subordinates who apparently recorded and kept his SMSes regarding his authorisation to grant the Guptas the landing rights for their jet at the air force base.

When questioned by the junior officials regarding the unusual nature of the authorisation, Koloane apparently told them this was “cleared by the Presidency and the International Relations Department”.

Presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj said on Saturday: “The Presidency did not feature at all in this matter. The Presidency was not informed or consulted. The Presidency does not play any role in arranging travel arrangements for foreign delegations.”

The government’s official stance this week was that there was no executive authorisation, meaning neither the president not the affected ministers knew about it.

Koloane apparently inspected and ensured that the air force base was decorated, and he was the most senior official present in the early hours of Tuesday morning to welcome “the dignitaries”.

He also authorised the landing of helicopters to fly “VVIP” guests from the air force base to Pilanesberg airport.

This was questioned by Brigadier-General Les Lombard – Officer Commanding Air Force Command Post – because the helicopter landings were not part of the initial authorisation request.

He was apparently assured by Koloane that this was sanctioned by the highest office in the land.

Lombard, who could not be reached for comment, was placed on special leave this week.

Lombard and an International Relations junior official apparently recorded – in the e-mail and stored SMSes – Koloane’s answers to theirqueries, and this is likely to be used as evidence during a probe by a team of directors-general. The DGs were instructed to release a report within a week.

The team includes State Security DG Dennis Dlomo, International Relations DG Jerry Matjila, Sars commissioner Oupa Magashula, national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega and secretary of Defence Sam Gulube.

However, a senior defence official – who could not be named because of rules governing communication – felt that the three air force staff placed on compulsory leave were merely used as scapegoats.

“This Dirco (International Relations) guy (Koloane) submitted paperwork and our guys processed the request in accordance with normal procedure,” says the official.

The three defence officials were among five officials – including Koloane and Lombard – who appear to have taken the fall for the disaster.

Sapa reports that nine officers of the Tshwane metro police have been arrested after they allegedly formed part of a security complement that escorted Gupta family wedding guests to Sun City.

Tshwane Metro’s Superintendent Isaac Mahamba was quoted as saying: “We will do our own investigation on the charges as we need to verify information with the local police station.”

The crisis almost dragged President Jacob Zuma’s office into the eye of the storm, largely due to his friendly association with the Gupta family that has business relationships with a number of his children.

Zuma has thus far survived the crisis, with almost all government officials maintaining that he did not know about, and was infuriated by, the landing saga.

However, the initial anger among ANC and alliance officials intensified when the Gupta name popped up at the centre of the unprecedented breach of military security.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe on Wednesday demanded answers from all those involved, including “the president”.

The Sunday Independent understands that some alliance leaders were prepared to pull out of his government should it be revealed that Zuma was implicated in the crisis. There were fears that a special national executive committee meeting of the ANC could be called to demand answers, until the high-level ministerial team explained that only bureaucrats were implicated.

The crisis, especially the involvement of the Guptas, has triggered a backlash among some cabinet ministers and ANC officials against the powerful family who used to summon top officials – including opposition leaders – to their house.

After the landing debacle on Tuesday, some ministers and ANC leaders privately expressed their discomfort with the Guptas’ relationship with Zuma, with some deciding not to attend the wedding.

Besides the five officials placed on leave, the Indian high commissioner – is also likely to face the music for saying that there were 217 people in the “Indian delegation” accompanying ministers.

International Relations officials met Virendra Gupta on Friday but he has not been sent packing. Diplomatic sources say the South African government has decided to protest directly to the Indian government.

Zuma’s office said late on Friday night: “The president has emphasised that the investigation and the manner in which this matter is handled should not be allowed to impact negatively on the warm and friendly historical relations that exist between the governments of the Republic of South Africa and India… which go back to the very beginning of our respective Struggles against colonialism and apartheid”.

In a statement on Saturday, the Gupta family apologised “in light of what happened and all the incidents reported”.

“The family would like to issue a general apology to all affected, including the South African and Indian governments, the local authorities, the South African public and especially our guests”.

Attempts to get their comments on their airport request proved to be unsuccessful.

Additional reporting by Moshoeshoe Monare

Sunday Independent

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