It took a statement from a rather cross Gwede Mantashe on Tuesday night to bring the whole Gupta house of cards tumbling down. From Wednesday, the political and diplomatic fallout from the illegal use of the Waterkloof Air Force Base by the Gupta family has been spectacular. Up to now, the Gupta overlords have been untouchable (in the non-Indian-caste sense) and nobody in the ANC or government would dare cross them. But this time, their bullying, waywardness, conceit and arrogance reached the point of no return. Their abuse of political connections has been exposed and the backlash in the entire country is unprecedented. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Because this is such a special occasion, let’s go back to that great reference point in President Jacob Zuma’s life: the Schabir Shaik trial. The reason why Shaik and Zuma were both charged with corruption was because of the way they each abused their relationship for material gain. Shaik would flaunt his self-styled position as Zuma’s financial advisor to get ahead in the business world; Zuma would allow him to do so, as well as nod on cue in the presence of business people, in exchange for the privilege of having a sponsor on call. It was a mutually beneficial relationship and they both coasted along happily until the National Prosecuting Authority disrupted the party.
Their relationship, particularly according to the amended Corruption Act, was deemed to be corrupt and Shaik was sentenced to 15 years in prison as a result. Into the breach stepped the Gupta brothers, up to then a relatively unknown family who left India to set up base in Johannesburg some 20 years ago. And the Guptas made Shaik look like an amateur. They are highly ambitious, crusading businessmen who do everything on a grand scale. They commandeered Zuma’s family, his Cabinet, government departments and parastatals – and had no qualms about doing so.
From the start of the Zuma presidency, rumours have circulated about ANC leaders learning of their Cabinet appointments via the Gupta brothers and directors-general being summoned to the Guptas’ Saxonwold compound to receive instructions on how to direct major government contracts their way.
Despite media revelations about millions of rands from parastatals being channelled into the Gupta-owned The New Age newspaper through their business breakfasts, the arrangement has continued regardless, with Cabinet ministers on constant parade to keep the funds rolling in.
The Guptas seemed unfazed by bad publicity and allegations of illicit dealings. They conduct their business with an air of invincibility and are very forthright in the way they use their political connections.
They do not name drop, they instruct those whose names others drop what to do. They do so with the confidence of people who own the most powerful in the land.
While several high-ranking people in the state and the ANC have spoken off the record on the inordinate power wielded by the Gupta brothers, nobody has dared to openly break the sacred covenant of the goings on behind the high walls in Saxonwold. Those who have been exposed to their bullying and arrogance fear being victimised or losing their jobs due to the family’s proximity to the president and the ability to continuously use that relationship for their benefit.
And then the wedding came, and with it a moment in the time-space continuum when over-the-top becomes just too much.
It was designed to be an ostentatious spectacle, something which would get tongues wagging in South Africa and India. Weddings in India are normally grand and protracted affairs but the wedding of Vega Gupta and Aakash Jahajgarhia was meant to flaunt the family’s substantial riches and status as pseudo-royalty in a four-day extravaganza at Sun City, designed by the Gavin Rajah Concept. Apart from the lavish arrangements, dance and pageantry to rival a Bollywood production, it was to be a gathering of the Guptas’ elite political and business connections in South Africa and India.
About 200 guests, apparently including Indian ministers of state, were being flown to South Africa from New Delhi. Nothing wrong with booking flights for your wedding guests, nothing wrong with chartering a jet to fly them over either, nothing wrong with any of it, if you can afford it, of course. But with the Guptas, it couldn’t stop there – not with all their political connections in the South African state open to them.
They pulled strings, leaned on a few people, snapped their fingers and voila! They managed to wangle clearance to land the Jet Airways A330-203 passenger jet at the Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria. When they were first denied permission to land at the national key point by the Department of Defence, they asked the Indian High Commissioner Virendra Gupta to get authorisation from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco). Speaking on SABC television on Thursday night the high commissioner said the arrangements were made to use Waterkloof for the arrival of the wedding guests for “security” and “convenience”.
When news broke of the jet landing at a national key point on Tuesday, there was no official response from government to explain the protocol and security anomaly. Although the media were asking questions, which opposition parties were bound to chase up on, the issue could probably have been kept shrouded under the legislation governing national key points, as has been the case with the president’s Nkandla residence.
But then, around 21:00 on Tuesday, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe issued a media statement which opened the sluice gates. Most ANC statements are issued in the name of the ANC national spokesman Jackson Mthembu. Only under special circumstances are they issued by the secretary general. The language in the terse three-paragraph statement was also vintage Mantashe – brash, minus any attempt at niceties. It was either written directly by him or dictated to someone by him.
“The African National Congress has learnt that guests of a family hosting some wedding at Sun City landed at the Waterkloof Airforce Base today,” the statement began, going on to explain that significance of a national key point.
“The African National Congress waited patiently for the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), the body delegated with authority over the Waterkloof Airforce Base, to explain to the nation how these private individuals managed to land aircraft at Waterkloof. Up until now, no explanation has been forthcoming. The African National Congress, driven by the concern for the safety and sovereignty of South Africa, shall never allow a situation where our ports of entry and National Key Points are penetrated with impunity.
“We demand that those who are responsible for granting access to land aircraft in our country also explain the basis upon which such permission was granted, particularly to land at Waterkloof Airforce Base. Those who cannot account must be brought to book,” Mantashe said.
He went on to say that the ANC “will never rest where there is any indication that all and sundry may be permitted to undermine the Republic, its citizens and its borders.”
The ANC statement on the Gupta jet late on Tuesday was unprecedented. The ANC has never before been as forthright in demanding answers from the Zuma administration. It could be that Mantashe had simply had enough of the Guptas running the state and ruining his organisation and decided to stamp his authority on the situation.
There have also been rumours of a widening schism between the Zuma camp and Mantashe. This could have resulted in the ANC secretary general being less cautious about upsetting the president’s friends. It is also possible that Mantashe could have called Zuma to interrogate how this happened, as he is prone to do with ANC leaders when trouble is on the horizon. Zuma, obviously, would have denied knowledge or responsibility, prompting Mantashe to rattle cages in the state.
But Zuma is also an enigma in his relations with those close to him. He could have called the hit. He could have become angered that the Guptas used their proximity to him to muscle their way onto a military air base and decided to teach them a lesson.
Whatever the motivation, Mantashe cranked open the vault which houses the secret workings of the Gupta dynasty. Cosatu, the SACP and the ANC Youth League interim task team issued statements condemning the use of the airforce base and demanding answers as to how the violation of a national key point was allowed to happen.
In the state too, all sorts of investigations began, admissions were forthcoming and dramatic action taken in record time – never before witnessed in the Zuma administration.
By Thursday morning it became clear that five government departments were involved and needed to provide answers – Dirco, Home Affairs, Defence, the South African Revenue Service and the SAPS. While the first four would be involved in the landing and entry of the Indian nationals into the country, the SAPS was on the spot to explain why they were involved in escorting the guests to Sun City in blue-light convoys.
Dirco promptly suspended the chief of state protocol, Ambassador Bruce Koloane, who is alleged to have facilitated landing rights for the jet at Waterkloof. Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula ordered that the jet be removed from the airforce base and on Thursday afternoon it was pictured taking off.
Government has been unusually talkative on the matter. Departmental spokesmen have made themselves available for interviews and even Cabinet ministers who are difficult to pin down in times of crisis were speaking to the media.
During the post-Cabinet media briefing, Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane said the incident was “very serious” and high-level investigations were underway to get answers. Later Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa announced that he had instructed the national police commissioner, Riah Phiyega. to investigate the matter and admitted possible transgressions by police officials in the deployment of resources to the Gupta wedding.
“[There was also] possible abuse of SA Police Service (SAPS) blue lights… [There were] unconfirmed reports indicating that some of the vehicles used in transporting guests were not SAPS vehicles but private vehicles which were fitted with police blue lights,” Mthethwa said in a statement.
The Guptas, it would seem, just pushed too far this time. While they have been making a mockery of the South Africa state for a while by trading on their relationship with Zuma, they were caught out this time compromising a national security installation. It also seems that too many people in the alliance and in government were fed up with the special treatment for, and being pushed around by, the swaggering family.
Now that Mantashe has gone where no ANC man has gone before, there is a stampede behind him to lay bare the den of unsavoury dealings. After such a crass abuse of political connections to show off for a wedding, the Guptas will have a hard time scrambling back to the position of privilege. Once the guests have left, they will have to do some hard lobbying to crawl back into favour.
But all this will be dependent on the one man who hasn’t yet spoken on the issue, the man who gave the Guptas their free reign and quite possibly decided to trip them. Even the Guptas will never know if it was Zuma who rained on their parade.
He is not called Gedleyihlekisa (one who smiles while grinding his enemies) for nothing. DM
All tortoises are actually turtles. Some turtles however are not tortoises.