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Waterkloof Air Force Base, 30 April 2013: South Africa...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Waterkloof Air Force Base, 30 April 2013: South Africa is invaded, violated and captured

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Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal and an executive member of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha. He writes in his personal capacity.

The touchdown of a Jet Airways chartered flight with about 200 guests of the Gupta family on board at Waterkloof was a catalytic moment in South Africa’s modern political history. Eight years later, the full implications are still being unravelled at the Zondo Commission.

Regardless of the evidence presented at, and the outcome of, the Zondo Commission, on the morning of 30 April 2013, South Africans woke up to the shocking news that our country had been invaded, captured and violated by the wily, slimy Gupta brothers – for proverbial pieces of silver.

A Jet Airways Airbus A330-200 chartered flight carrying about 200 guests from India to attend a wedding of the Guptas’ niece at Sun City, and which apparently included some politicians from Uttar Pradesh state, landed at Waterkloof Air Force Base, a privilege only accorded to heads of state. There was an immediate public outcry about who approved this violation of South African military space, with denials from all possible persons implicated, including senior bureaucrats from foreign and international affairs, government ministers and then president Jacob Zuma.

To add insult to injury, a blue-light brigade (normally only used by police) escorted the guests as they were transported by road (145km) to Sun City. There were also concerns that the guests might not have had visas to enter South Africa, and normal immigration and customs processes were compromised. One hundred and thirty chefs were brought from India. There was also a special request that Sun City employ a further 65 white butlers to serve guests.

According to trade union Cosatu, the Guptas did not want their guests to be “served by the African staff members who are employed in the resort. They demand that their services must be rendered by white personnel, starting from the cleaning of their rooms, the cooking and the drivers of the shuttles they use in the resort.” Subsequently, in 2017 the #GuptaLeaks emails revealed that there were indeed requests to service providers from the family that those who come into contact with their guests at the wedding should be white.

Given the public outrage, the government was forced to intervene swiftly. Rather than institute an independent judicial inquiry, which the magnitude of the violation demanded, an internal technical investigation was instituted instead which lacked credibility and transparency.  

More specifically, the “ministers of the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security (JCPS) Cluster instructed on 2 May 2013 that a team of directors-general investigate the circumstances that gave rise to the incident and report their findings within seven working days”. Zuma emphasised that the investigation should not undermine “the warm and friendly historical relations that exist between the governments of the Republic of South Africa 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”.

According to the JCPS report the Guptas had initially approached Airports Company South Africa in February 2013 for permission for landing rights at OR Tambo International Airport, with an elaborate reception for guests. This was rejected because of disruptions to the normal operations at the airport. They subsequently approached the minister of defence and military veterans for permission to land at Waterkloof, but this was refused.

The Guptas then decided to manipulate “the diplomatic channel with the support of an individual in the Indian High Commission who redesignated the wedding entourage as an official delegation to enable them to use Waterkloof under the cover of diplomatic privilege. However, there was a breach in protocol and procedure, and the Chief of State Protocol Bruce Koloane, and Officer Commanding Movement Control at the Waterkloof base, Lieutenant-Colonel Christine Anderson, were complicit and recommended for appropriate disciplinary charges.

As emphasised by investigative reporter Pieter-Louis Myburgh, the JCPS report strangely does not offer any explanation as to why two senior and experienced officials “would risk their careers and reputations for the benefit of a wealthy family with whom they had no personal connection”.

There were allegations that the technical report was superficial, and a “cover-up”. Anderson, via the Defence Force Union, questioned ethical, technical and methodological procedures, as well as the factual accuracy of the JCPS report. According to the union, after a 10- to 15-minute casual discussion “some of those things that were informally related are now twisted and used as certain findings – and obviously a lot of other things are said in the report about her [Colonel Anderson] that were never put to her”. All charges against Anderson were later withdrawn, probably because she indicated that Koloane had informed her that “Number One [President of the Republic of South Africa] has knowledge about the flight”. In a sworn statement, Sergeant-Major Thabo Ntshisi at the Air Force Command Post also “confirmed Anderson’s claim about Zuma’s involvement, as relayed by Koloane”.

The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation contended that “South Africans need to understand why and how a single family has come to wield such enormous power and influence over sections of government and its administration”.

Koloane pleaded guilty to the very serious charges of “abusing state diplomatic channels”, “misrepresenting facts” and “compromising processes and procedures” and was fined two months of his salary and demoted. Amazingly, in August 2014 Koloane was promoted as ambassador to the Netherlands. This made a mockery of Justice Minister Jeff Radebe’s public assurance that “no stone will be left unturned to ensure that we get to the bottom of this matter and hold all those responsible for bringing our country into disrepute whoever they are and whatever position they hold”.

In a conversation with journalist Rajesh Sundaram, Atul Gupta had boasted sinisterly: “The personnel against whom action has been taken will be reinstated very soon. We are an influential family here, and no one can point fingers at us… President Zuma is on our side, he knows our family, and we helped him when he was down and out; he will help us through this as well.”

It was clear from the various transgressions of the Guptas, and especially the Waterkloof landing, that they believed that they were invincible. The government investigation into this matter was at best superficial and intended to protect Zuma and the Guptas. While the outrageous antics of this family were roundly condemned, journalist Redi Tlhabi contended that the Guptas “are guilty only of positioning themselves and taking advantage of the comforts afforded to them. It would seem that their powerful friends in the government are fawning over them, willing to sell their souls and the country.”

In February 2013, senior newspaper editor Mondli Makhanya argued that the Guptas’ “pernicious role in South Africa’s political life deserves close scrutiny. The power of this family, derived from their close relationship with the president and his family, makes the stomach heave. Their bullying of ministers and government officials, using the president’s name, is legendary in government circles.”

The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation contended that “South Africans need to understand why and how a single family has come to wield such enormous power and influence over sections of government and its administration”.

ANC veteran Pallo Jordan maintained that the Waterkloof incident raised questions about Zuma’s credibility and judgement: “If the actions of your friends suggest a lack of respect for you and a tendency to abuse your name, we would not be remiss in questioning your own judgement. Until all the questions about this humiliating incident are adequately answered, the Gupta jet incident will corrode Zuma’s credibility, leaving serious questions about his judgement.”

While there is no intention here to pre-empt or upstage the Zondo Commission’s report, 30 April 2013 was a catalytic moment and all in the ANC government and governing party knew then that there was “something rotten in the state of South Africa” and were complicit in the failure to take decisive action against those implicated and must be held accountable. DM

This is an edited extract from: Maharaj, B. 2021. “The NRI Gupta Waterkloof Landing: Implications for Political Integration of PIOs in South Africa” In R. Gowricharn (ed.), “The politics of Integration in Indian Diaspora Societies”. New York: Routledge, (pp. 67-84).

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  • Thank you Professor for a good article. What happened here was treason to the highest degree, yet nothing happened to those involved, including the sitting president, Zuma, and Gigaba, then minister of home affairs

  • “Amazingly, in August 2014 Koloane was promoted as ambassador to the Netherlands.” This single sentence sums up well the ANC’s duplicitous performance in government since 2008.

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