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18 March 2018 06:15 (South Africa)
South Africa

Oh, what a circus: Guptagate comes to Parliament

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa
rebecca waterkloof.jpg

On Wednesday, the government team tasked with investigating the circumstances under which the Guptas were able to land an aircraft at the Waterkloof air force base released their report. Their investigation points the finger of blame squarely at the Guptas, two state officials, and individuals in the Indian High Commission. Zuma, it says, is innocent in the matter. But absolutely none of the opposition MPs who addressed a fiery debate in the National Assembly on Wednesday afternoon were buying that. By REBECCA DAVIS.

What do you get when you bring together a group of heated-up opposition MPs clearly exhilarated by the prospect of putting the boot into the governing party, and a defensive ANC caught on the back-foot? Well, for one thing, Wednesday’s parliamentary debate made for some exceptionally entertaining viewing. If the SABC were to broadcast that stuff live, they might have less trouble recouping license fees. Indeed, it’s a genuine pity that the debates are generally confined to the DSTV Parliament Channel: something acknowledged by government a few weeks ago, when the call to establish a parliamentary TV channel was reiterated.

It appeared that opposition MPs had not been given access to the Guptagate report before the debate – “One would have thought we would have received the report to enhance the debate,” sniffed the UDM’s Bantu Holomisa – but it is extremely doubtful that they would have changed their tune after reading it. The debate was a gift for the opposition. The Guptagate scandal has been condemned by the top levels of the ANC, but there is one inescapable fact underpinning the whole messy saga: none of this would have happened if Jacob Zuma did not have an inappropriately close relationship of patronage with the Gupta family.

ANC MPs did not bother to try to defend Zuma’s relationship with the Guptas. It is, after all, a matter of public record: DA Shadow Defence Minister David Maynier pointed out that in February Jacob Zuma had brought Atul Gupta to parliament for the State of the Nation Address, in which he railed against corruption. “The President did not hesitate to flaunt his close relationship with the Guptas, right here, under our noses, in Parliament,” Maynier said. (‘Said’ is actually an inaccurate verb when it comes to describing how any MPs made their points during the debate: they yelled, shouted, gesticulated, in order to make themselves heard above perpetual heckling from both sides.)

One of the most succinct and powerful points was made by the IFP: that the people who used President Zuma’s name to secure use of the base, and the people who reacted to the name to give access, were all presumably operating under the assumption that Zuma would sanction this “gross violation of national security”. Even if Zuma had zero direct involvement, then, it is nonetheless damaging that officials would consider it perfectly plausible that he had given his say-so to the Guptas to land at a military base and be greeted as dignitaries.

The stand-out villain of the task team’s report is protocol chief Bruce Koloane, who is painted as knowingly and repeatedly misrepresenting the situation and lying about who he was taking orders from. When Koloane contacted an advisor to the Defence Minister to push him on the use of Waterkloof for the Guptas in March, he said he was “under pressure from number one” – the president. The presidency maintains that Koloane was lying when he said this, and when he subsequently invoked Zuma’s name. “At no point did the president give instructions to Ambassador Koloane or discuss the issue of the landing of the aircraft with him,” the Director-General in the Presidency told the task team. He denied that the presidency “had ever received a request for landing at Waterkloof Air Base from any person whatsoever”.

If this is true, what on earth was going on with Koloane? What would motivate him to stick his neck out so far for the Guptas, presumably knowing that his actions would bring him some personal risk? In Parliament, the ACDP’s Kenneth Meshoe asked whether it had been investigated if any money had changed hands between the Guptas and officials like Koloane – a relevant query under the circumstances, one would’ve thought. It will be extremely interesting to watch what happens to Koloane and Lieutenant-Colonal Christine Anderson, who is the other official the task team report blames.

After all, it is not as if the report leaves room for the possibility that the likes of Koloane and Anderson acted from a position of unknowing error or misunderstanding. The wording is clear: these officials brought about the “manipulation of the process”, and they “shared a common purpose and acted in concert”. Justice Minister Jeff Radebe had similarly harsh words for the luckless twosome in the National Assembly: “Evidence shows that the two officials are not fall guys or scapegoats, but the masters of the manipulation process,” he said. “They were on a frolic of their own”.

Koloane and Anderson, consider yourselves officially thrown under the bus. If you’d like to tell your side of the story, feel free to drop us a line at the Daily Maverick.

But the report makes it clear that they didn’t act alone. The Gupta family and individuals in the Indian High Commission come in for an equal pasting, and there’s no fudging around that. After the Airports Company of SA (ACSA) and the Defence Ministry turned down requests to use OR Tambo and Waterkloof respectively, the report described what happened next. “The Gupta family then resorted to the use of the diplomatic channel with the support of an individual in the Indian High Commission who re-designated the wedding entourage as an official delegation to enable them to use the Air Force Base Waterkloof under the cover of diplomatic privilege”.

Is it possible for Zuma’s special friendship with the Guptas to survive this storm? Maynier described them as “Zuma’s sugar daddies”. Why haven’t the Guptas been charged? asked Meshoe. “The Gupta affair,” said the PAC’s Letlapa Mphahlele, “goes straight to the core of our political morality or lack thereof”. Their reputation is now solidly synonymous with crooked wheeler-dealings: something highlighted by the Minority Front’s Rohith Bhoola, when he launched into what seemed to be an admonishment to the world not to associate name-dropping and corruption solely with Indians: “We can’t stereotype this kind of thing; it happens in every community,” he said.

Bhoola’s weren’t the only outlandish statements flying around the National Assembly on Wednesday. Repeated mentions were made of Helen Zille’s delicious dinner chez Guptas, as a way of implying that the Guptas’ web of patronage had touched politicians across the spectrum. “Did you enjoy the curry?” thundered fearsome ANC MP Annelize van Wyk to the DA benches. A point of order was called: to whom, exactly, was the question addressed? “It was directed at your leader,” Van Wyk replied.

More colourful assertions followed. Cope MP Mosiuoa Lekota opined that the ANC “runs this country as if South Africans have got a chicken’s memory”. Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor hit back by suggesting that Lekota had been “angry since 2007”, because he “did not enjoy the weather in Polokwane” – a reference to Lekota’s break with the ANC.

AZAPO President Jacob Dikobo suggested that the levels of the Waterkloof violation were such that if South Africa were a woman, “we would say she had been raped”. His language was rightly rebuked. Perhaps most dramatically, the PAC’s Mphahlele suggested that “our politicians are receiving money dripped in blood and cocaine”.

The ANC MPs to whom it fell to defend the dignity of the ruling party came across – unsurprisingly – as tense and defensive. (The ID’s Joe McGluwa prefaced his remarks to parliament by saying “I have never seen the ANC so embarrassed as today”.) Naledi Pandor suggested that the opposition could not handle the truth of a report that did not implicate President Zuma because they are “consumed with their hatred” of him. “All that this debate has been called for is to allow the loud opposition to attack the ANC and the president,” Pandor said.

She had a point. The opposition didn’t really bother making boring arguments about a culture of corruption or the circumstances that fostered nepotism and name-dropping, for instance. What they used their platform for, essentially, was to kick the ANC and campaign for the 2014 elections. Maynier was the most explicit about this: “If we really want to ensure that something like this never happens again…we have to come together in our millions and – together – fire President Jacob Zuma on election day in 2014,” he concluded. But even the IFP saw their gap and ran for it, exhorting the public to compare Zuma’s corrupt governance with their unblemished leader Buthelezi.

Why was it Pandor’s task to speak for the ANC on this occasion? Addressing an audience in Johannesburg on Wednesday evening, Agang leader Mamphela Ramphele reportedly said that she would have “least expected” the defence of Guptagate to come from Pandor. The Higher Education Minister was, however, one of the ANC ministers who attended the Gupta wedding even in the face of the Waterkloof controversy, while the likes of Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula (and, of course, Zuma himself) opted not to go in the end.

Pandor previously said she went to the wedding because “the invitation was intriguingly beautiful and it was my first invitation to a traditional Indian wedding”. (Someone else who accepted with alacrity, you might recall, is the IFP’s squeaky-clean leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.) But the decision of Pandor to attend the wedding is cast in a slightly new light by one of the findings of the task team’s report. It noted that as the storm over Waterkloof grew, department Director Generals met with their ministers and “advise[d] against attendance at the wedding”.

The report contains several other intriguing details. Diplomatic passport numbers of three of the visitors from India differed from passport numbers provided to the SA High Commission in New Delhi, the task team found. It also noted that one of the crew members from the Gupta’s plane “did not leave the Republic”, and still has not. It also reveals some shambolic administration from SARS. SARS was invited to be present at the airbase when the visitors arrived, but the official who received the relevant fax was using a private fax-to-email number and had left SARS a year earlier. Chillingly, he had continued to receive all the faxes detailing international VIP flights to South Africa – a major security risk.

Out of this sorry saga, though, the task team attempted to extract something upbeat, and found two things. Firstly, they declared it “commendable” that there were some public servants who “raised concerns without fear, favour or prejudice, some of them repeatedly, as to what was transpiring” – though seemingly without any impact whatsoever. And secondly, the task team believes that “the unified public voice which condemned the incident, together with decisive government action, serves as a useful basis for the development of a partnership between our people and their government in the fight to combat crime and corruption in our country”.

Scant consolations, some would say. DM

Photo: An aerial photograph shows Waterkloof Air Force Base during a media tour of the facility on Thursday, 13 November 2008. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa

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