On Thursday the Indian High Commission hosted a press briefing on the upcoming India Africa Festival. Few journalists who made it to the event were, however, actually interested in the festival itself. It was the role of the Indian High Commission in securing landing rights for the aircraft chartered by the Gupta family that had drawn most to the briefing. By KHADIJA PATEL.
While President Jacob Zuma has refrained from commenting directly on the controversy over the use of the Waterkloof airbase by the Gupta family, he has tried to smooth over any feathers in the Indian government that may have been ruffled in the furore. In an interview with the SABC last weekend, Zuma said the Indian High Commission could not be blamed for its role in securing landing rights at the Waterkloof airbase.
Zuma said the High Commission had made an application requesting to land at Waterkloof Military base, but the application was wrongly handled. Quite apart from Zuma’s remarks, reports emerged late last week suggesting that South Africa was considering issuing a demarche, the highest diplomatic rebuke, to India.
On Thursday, the High Commissioner of India, Virendra Gupta, insisted that the High Commission had done nothing wrong in the way it applied for landing rights at Waterkloof. He said the procedure that the High Commission had followed – approaching the South African National Defence Force directly without the intermediary of the Department of International Relations and Co-Operation was in fact the procedure determined for these matters by the South African government.
Gupta – who is no relation to the Guptas – said, “Bypassing Dirco was not irregular.” According to him, it was normal procedure for the Indian High Commission to contact a department of the South African National Defence Force that deals with foreign military relations. The South African government has previously claimed that the application was made directly to Waterkloof command. On this point at least, there appears to be a significant contradiction between the version of events as told by the Indian High Commission and those offered by government last week.
Gupta, however, was reluctant to delve into any further detail, or entertain questions about the role of the Indian High Commission in the ongoing controversy.
“All relevant facts have been provided to Dirco,” he said.
When Daily Maverick contacted the spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs on Thursday, Syed Akbaruddin, for an official Indian government position on the saga, we were referred back to the Indian High Commission. New Delhi, at least, is confident that the situation is being managed adequately by its representatives in Pretoria. A diplomatic spat between South Africa and India, who are partners in BRICS and the Ibsa forum, would be unseemly.
It is understandable that the South African government has sought to restrict the diplomatic repercussions of its investigations into allegations of the misuse of state property by the Gupta family.
“But of course it’s important to know that you are dealing with citizens of another country, India, there are diplomatic relations, so the manner in which we handle that it must be handled in that understanding,” Zuma said to the SABC.
The president’s spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, also tried to quell the potential for a diplomatic fallout. He said in a statement last week, “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 and the Republic of India and also between the peoples of South Africa and India, which go back to the very beginning of our respective struggles against colonialism and Apartheid.”
High Commissioner Gupta insisted he held a deep, personal, emotional involvement with South Africa that extended back to the struggle against Apartheid in the 1980s. He also described the relationship between the two countries as “unique”, “well-rounded”, “multi-faceted” and “extremely co-operative”.
Last week, Minister of International Relations and Co-Operation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane warned that in the event of government’s investigation revealing a breach in diplomatic protocol processes, South Africa would not hesitate to censure Indian authorities.
“We will use diplomatic channels to register our displeasure with the Indian government,” she said. “Whether there’ll be punishment or not will be co-ordinated by ourselves, procedurally, working together with the government of India.”
But it’s not the first time South Africa’s relations with India have come under intense scrutiny in recent months.
Soon after the fifth BRICS summit was held in Durban in March, the Indian Sunday Express reported that Indian state officials, including Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, were snubbed by Zuma. The principal complaint seemed to be that Zuma failed to hold bilateral talks with Singh during the BRICS summit. According to the report, the entire schedule drawn up by South Africa was in disarray and the two leaders were unable to hold talks.
The Indian spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Syed Akbaruddin, told Daily Maverick that he had actually addressed this report weeks ago.
“The Prime Minister had adequate opportunities to interact with President Zuma on more than one occasion,” he said. “If there is a feeling that there has not been any interaction, this is absolutely wrong.
“I can confirm, and this is not something to hide, that there was no structured delegation-level meeting due to scheduling issues, but that does not mean that there was any problem in terms of the principal meeting.”
He stressed, “I would also like to take the opportunity to clarify [that] there is this talk [that] perhaps this was a snub or some sort of a premeditated effort. Absolutely no!”
And while both South Africa and India have sought to both quell any doubts that their bilateral relations are in trouble, the controversy over the Gupta jet has proven how two countries who have partnered with each other to exert influence globally, and shoulder global responsibilities, have been risked by the fallout of the Waterkloof airbase controversy. DM
Photo: Atul Gupta
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