South Africa

The Gupta jet: ‘Wasta’ matter with this picture?

By Khadija Patel 3 May 2013

Heads will have to roll to absolve the Zuma administration of any blame in the Gupta plane saga, but while government scrambles over determining exactly whose heads those must be, the proximity of the Guptas to South African government officials does merit scrutiny as well. By KHADIJA PATEL.

The Jet Airways jet at the centre of the controversy surrounding the use of a military facility by the Gupta family has been moved to OR Tambo International Airport. In the meantime, Vega Gupta has married Aakash Jahajgarhia. And as she prepares for her own ‘happily ever after’, her family claim they’ve done nothing wrong by using an air force base, a National Key Point, to ferry their guests to the wedding.

Political parties across the spectrum have bemoaned the affair as an abuse of state resources, which put the country’s security at risk.

It is nonetheless issues of “security” that Virendra Gupta, the Indian High Commissioner, says motivated the application for the plane to land at Waterkloof in the first place.

“We did apply for permission for the landing… because there were several VIPs, senior political figures from India who were going to come on the flight,” Gupta told the SABC on Thursday.

“For the standpoint of convenience, we applied for permission [for] landing the aircraft at Waterkloof, following standard procedures.”

The family themselves released a statement on Thursday evening insisting they had obtained the necessary permissions to land the plane at Waterkloof.

“For the record, the family has obtained each and every permission for any and every part of the event,” the statement said.

“The family was not directly involved in the Waterkloof incident, but have been assured by the Indian High Commission that proper process was followed and agreements reached with the appropriate officials in Dirco as would happen in any visit by high profile Ministers and dignitaries.”

President Zuma, himself a close friend of the family, has not been impressed – or so the story goes. While several government departments are now scrambling to understand how exactly this plane got to Waterkloof in the first place, it is the efficacy of government’s control over itself that is set to be tested. And in order to assert the Zuma administration’s blamelessness in the matter, heads will have to roll.

Already one staff member of the Department of International Relations and Co-Operation has been suspended for his role in facilitating the request for landing rights at the Waterkloof airbase. Bruce Koloane, a former ambassador to Spain and currently the head of protocol at Dirco, has been placed on “special leave” by the Minister of International Relations and Co-Operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. And while some express their incredulity that a lone public servant could be responsible for the entire rumpus, the government has urged patience, promising clarity through further investigation. Investigations by the police, departments of international relations and defence, and the South African Revenue Service (SARS), are all aimed at understanding whether diplomatic privilege had been abused by the Indian High Commission at the behest of the Guptas.

These investigations start on the premise that no one in government is directly responsible for the abuse. Spokesperson for Dirco, Clayson Monyela, was at pains all through Thursday to point out that neither his boss, Nkoana-Mashabane, nor any other member of the executive had been informed about the request from the Indian High Commission for the plane to land at the Waterkloof air base.

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said she was informed about media reports on the clearance given to the aircraft during her visit to Ethiopia earlier this week. On her return, she sought out officials from the South African National Defence Force to explain what exactly had happened. Her department certainly places the buck with Dirco, but Mapisa-Nqakula crucially also notes that she refused an informal request for the plane to land at Waterkloof.

“A representative of Sahara approached us for assistance in approving a request that was to be sent by Indian High Commissioner for the use of the Air Force base. This request for assistance was rejected, and since it was not even formalised, the Ministry considered the matter closed. It had been our advice that the Airports Company SA was best placed to assist,” the Minister of Defence said.

“It had never been our expectation, therefore, that attempts would then be made to find other avenues to try and secure the use of the Air Force base through the diplomatic channel at Dirco.”

So how, then, does one family, which is entertaining a few officials equivalent to South Africa’s MECs, reach the office of the Minister of Defence with such an audacious request? And when turned down there, how does it engage the Indian High Commission, thus ensnaring another government into its quest to get the plane to land at the Waterkloof air base?

If the Guptas’ actions here are curious, they may be better understood through a social phenomenon in another part of the world. In the Arabian gulf the term “wasta”, which effectively translates to “connections”, refers to someone well placed in government or the attendant bureaucracy, or anyone with some influence over the system, who can set the world at your feet, land you that job, cure your debt woes, bring back your lost lover and even get you upgraded to first class on Saudi Airlines at no extra cost (never underestimate the lure of extra legroom). And no, we’re not talking about practitioners of the dark arts here.

A wasta is always someone with influence, someone who can actually get the job done. It’s not necessarily someone you know intimately. It could sometimes be a complete stranger. By using his influence to perform a service, the wasta acquires rank and honour. The person on the receiving end of the favour incurs a debt of gratitude which may have to be repaid in unspecified ways at some point in the future.

Remember when the Guptas famously asked Western Cape premier Helen Zille for a police escort to the airport in Cape Town shortly after making a donation to the Democratic Alliance? They were turned down then, but the expectation that this exchange of favours could facilitate their own whim, is exactly what has happened in the Waterkloof saga as well.

One blogger describes wasta as “arguably the most valuable form of currency in much of the Middle East, far more effective than bribes and certainly more effective than following due process”. The Guptas are not Arab (hey, not all brown people are related) but they certainly have been cast aspersions on the merits of following due process in South Africa. DM

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Photo: A general view of the new Airbus A330 airplane. REUTERS/Christophe Ena/December 4, 2010.

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