South Africa

The Great Gupta Farce

By Ranjeni Munusamy 20 May 2013

The worst-kept secret in South Africa has now been confirmed by government: the Guptas drop President Jacob Zuma’s name to wrangle special privileges in the state. So where is the statement from the presidency expressing Zuma’s outrage (apparently he did not know this up to now) and distancing him from all the acts the Guptas committed in his name? In future, name-dropping in government will be considered to be gross misconduct (good luck policing that). The sound you are hearing is the Guptas laughing as they walk away unscathed, ready to continue with their marauding ways. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

On the face of it, the South African government acted with unprecedented high speed to deal with the fallout over the landing of the Guptas’ private jet carrying wedding guests from India at the Waterkloof Air Force Base. Within three weeks of the show-stopper wedding of the niece of the Gupta brothers, Cabinet ministers trotted out to present to the public the findings of a government investigation. So far, so good.

The report by a team of directors-general contains some startling new facts about the landing of the jet and transport of the wedding guests to the Sun City resort. The full report is to be released in the coming week, according to Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, who heads the justice, crime prevention and security Cabinet cluster which commissioned the investigation.

The total deployment of government personnel during the operation was 194 people and 88 vehicles, according to the statement on the report’s findings read by Radebe. Another 296 private security officers were deployed at the expense of the event organiser. The organisers also deployed two fixed-wing aircraft and seven helicopters to ferry their guests from the base to Sun City. This was authorised as a package linked to the already-issued clearance for Flight JAI 9900 (the Jet Airways plane carrying the wedding guests), Radebe said.

But for the most part, the statement covered what the ministers already said in their first press briefing in early May and what has been revealed in the media. When the Gupta family was unable to secure landing rights and an “elaborate reception” for the wedding party at OR Tambo International Airport, they exploited a diplomatic channel through the Indian High Commission to “re-designate the wedding entourage as an official delegation”. This enabled the Guptas to use the Waterkloof Air Force Base under the cover of diplomatic privilege.

“It is an undisputed fact that there was no official Note Verbale from the Indian High Commission to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, and therefore due process was not followed. An individual in the Indian High Commission communicated directly with individuals at the Air Force Command Post. The collusion of officials resulted in the irregular approval of the flight clearance,” Radebe said.

So for this, the Chief of State Protocol, Ambassador Bruce Koloane, is the main fall guy. Not the Guptas, who instigated the plan. The Officer Commanding Movement Control at the air force base, Lieutenant-Colonel Christine Anderson, also faces a disciplinary hearing for the flouting of normal procedures to allow the plane to land. Not the Guptas.

The implications for the Indian High Commission official involved are not yet known, as it is not yet clear whether he or she broke any South African law by changing the designation of the delegation to manipulate the process. The South African government obviously cannot prescribe penalties another government should take against its officials, but this issue could cause some discomfort when President Jacob Zuma attends the India Brazil SA Summit in New Delhi next week.

The Sunday Independent quoted a diplomatic source saying that the Indian government expected a diplomatic apology from Zuma over the Gupta jet furore as it was annoyed that its High Commissioner Virendra Gupta had been blamed by the South African government for the incident. This allegation of tensions between the two countries has, however, been denied by both the Indian High Commissioner and SA’s International Relations spokesman Clayson Monyela.

Radebe and his colleagues on Sunday tried to convey that the South African government viewed the landing of the aircraft at the air base in a serious light – even though the main culprits have yet to be punished. As expected, it is the officials who are carrying the brunt of the security breach.

“The landing of Flight JAI 9900 following the exercise of undue influence had the potential to compromise the credibility of the Government of the Republic, and could have caused severe reputational damage to the state itself.

“The activities of some of the persons involved were driven by the undesirable practice of the exercise of undue influence, and abuse of higher office. It posed a threat to the culture of professionalism that ought to characterise a caring and professional public service rooted in the Batho Pele principle. It undermines the quest to build a capable state and the requirement that it be served by professional public servants with foresight to understand the implications of their conduct for the reputation of the state,” Radebe said.

It has now emerged that the Waterkloof Air Force Base is not in fact a national key point, as it has been widely referred to up to now. Radebe said Waterkloof is a “strategic military base” governed under the Defence Act not the National Key Points Act.

“This being a strategic military base, which also serves as an entry point into South Africa; it has even more stringent security measures,” Radebe said.

Curiously, though, it would seem that President Zuma missed the “even more stringent security measures” part when he was briefed on the matter, as he appears to be under the impression that the fact that the air base is not a national key point makes the Guptas’ transgressions less serious. According to a report in The Sunday Independent, Zuma told an ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting over the weekend that his Cabinet members had not explained to the nation that Waterkloof was not a national key point, thus allowing the public uproar to continue.

But no matter what the classification, or whether the base is protected by the police (in the case of national key points) or the SA National Defence Force, the landing still constitutes a serious security breach as a result of manipulation by the president’s friends, the Guptas. It is yet to be seen whether the ANC has bought into the president’s explanation and whether it is satisfied with the outcome of the government probe. The ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, who himself referred to the base as a national key point in his statement condemning the plane landing, will hold a media briefing on Monday to announce the outcome of the NEC meeting.

In a surprise admission, Radebe said that in the arrangements for the plane to land and transport arrangements, the names of Zuma, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and Transport Minister Ben Martins were dropped to manipulate people into carrying out the instructions of the event organisers.

However, he did not mention who was guilty of name-dropping.

“Government, led by the Department of Public Service and Administration, should develop and implement a public service awareness campaign to discourage the negative culture of name dropping in the form of improper use of the names of members of the Executive in the public sector. In addition, the definition of acts of misconduct should be amended across government to include name-dropping as gross misconduct,” Radebe said.

If this does happen, it would be applicable mostly to public servants, not those who use politicians’ names to manipulate them.

It is a surprise that government admitted to the name-dropping – there has been a concerted effort to disassociate the president from the incident – but no surprise that the president and Cabinet minister’s names were used. The Guptas have flagrantly been using their friendship with Zuma to get the wheels turning in their favour and to manipulate senior government officials.

For this reason, the former director-general of domestic intelligence, Gibson Njenje, instituted an investigation into the security threat the Guptas pose to the country. This investigation was shut down by the State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele two years ago, adding to the perceived invincibility of the Gupta family.

Zuma has done nothing to stop the Guptas’ marauding behaviour up to now. His failure to repudiate the abuse of his name means that the officials who receive instructions from business people are not able to decipher whether these come from him. Perhaps he has spoken to the Guptas privately after the latest incident, but this does not assist the officials who receive their instructions or ward off other wayward business people.

So the 194 state officials, including Koloane, who assumed that they were acting according to Zuma’s will when they assisted with the Gupta wedding jamboree, will be none the wiser now. Neither are the thousands of other public servants who operate in an atmosphere where people associated with the president are seen to be above the law and should be treated as if they are in a different league from the rest of the country. For them, the message out there now is that it is okay to bend the rules to favour the politically connected, as long as you don’t get caught.

While Radebe claims that the government system works, in spite of the breach, the truth of the matter is that the uproar and public accountability around the incident would not have happened had the plane landing not been revealed in the media. But once Protection of State Information Bill is signed into law by Zuma, it will be almost impossible for the media to report on stories involving national key points or strategic military bases.

The report has now been forwarded to the police, prosecuting authority and other line function departments for further investigation and action. This means that the executive is now done with the Guptagate scandal, after having exonerated the president and his ministers of responsibility.

The Guptas have so far escaped without a single rebuke or consequence for their actions. The worst thing for them was a few embarrassing moments while their visitors were around.

Of course their public image has been massively dented by the revelations about how they operate, but it is unlikely that all the lucrative arrangements they have with government, including The New Age advertising and sponsorship deals, would be affected. They may also come in for a drubbing in the parliamentary debate on the issue this week, but they will shrug it off as a few biting remarks by opposition MPs: it will mean nothing to them.

The only thing that has outdone the big garish Gupta wedding has been the big government cover-up that ensued. For President Zuma and his friends the Guptas, it is back to business as usual – until the next scandal that makes a mockery of South Africa. DM

Photo: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma listens during closing remarks at the 5th BRICS Summit in Durban, March 27, 2013. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

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