By Craig Dodds, Candice Bailey and Loyiso Sidimba
Johannesburg - The government’s investigation into the Gupta scandal must reveal how one family came to wield such “immense” influence, “which it so brazenly displays over and over again”, in such a short period, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation said.
The foundation welcomed the government’s commitment to get to the bottom of the “sordid saga” involving a private jet loaded with wedding guests being allowed to land at Waterkloof Air Force Base. The government has said the inquiry must report back by Friday.
The foundation described it as a matter of national concern which warranted “the widespread condemnation and careful attention of all democrats”.
It also welcomed President Jacob Zuma’s statement that the incident should not negatively affect South Africa’s historic relationship with India.
Neeshan Balton, executive director of the foundation, recalled that the Guptas had previously used Joburg’s Zoo Lake as a private landing pad for their helicopters.
He was “equally shocked and deeply disturbed” by the claims of racism made by workers at Sun City, the venue for the lavish Gupta wedding. These warranted further investigation, possibly by the Human Rights Commission.
The foundation said the “lavish and extravagant” wedding ceremony was distasteful, as it flew in the face of widespread poverty, unemployment and inequality in both South Africa and India”.
“The tens of millions of rand spent (on the wedding) could better be used on the well-being of the poor and distressed in society.”
Balton said heroes of the Struggle against apartheid had led “simple and principled lives”.
“The proud legacy of struggle by our leaders and people must never be eroded by the disdainful deeds of a single family that attempts to wield power through the peddling of influence over high-profile politicians and civil servants”.
Justice Minister Jeff Radebe pledged at a media briefing last week that those responsible for the “unauthorised” landing of a jet carrying almost 200 Gupta wedding guests at Waterkloof would be held to account, “no matter what their position”.
A number of officials have been suspended or placed on compulsory leave, but the government has denied any members of the executive gave permission for the landing at Waterkloof.
However, commentators say the incident highlighted the power wielded by the family, thanks to its close ties to President Jacob Zuma.
Meanwhile, some of the background to the arrival of the chartered Indian jet at Waterkloof has been disclosed. Three months ago, a request was made to Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to allow the Gupta jet to land at Waterkloof, but she refused. The family then approached the Airports Company of SA, demanding that a part of OR Tambo International Airport – the busiest on the continent – be exclusively designated for their wedding guests.
Among their demands were that the guests’ luggage be delivered speedily and not go through baggage handling, that the customs processes be fast-tracked, and that they have a special immigration queue.
The demands 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 affair.
Martins’s spokesman, Tiyani Rikhotso, said: “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.”
Martins and Maseko conveyed this information to the Guptas. It is understood they were told 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.
This was when Koloane – according to a government official with intimate knowledge of the meeting who refused to be named because he was not the authorised spokesman – said the Department of International Relations could assist the Guptas.
This could not be confirmed independently. Koloane refused to comment on Monday. But it is believed that Koloane was brought down by his subordinates, who apparently recorded his SMSes regarding his authorisation to grant the Guptas the landing rights for their jet at Waterkloof.
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 Monday: “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 travel arrangements for foreign delegations.”