Govt report on flight scandal leaves South Africa asking more questions

A South African soldier stands guard as attack helicopters fly over on 18 September 2002 at Waterkloof air base. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

When South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma finally spoke out on May 23 about the flight scandal that has consumed the country for much of the past one month, it was to attempt to keep those baying for his blood at bay by blaming “name-droppers”.

A statement released by the Office of the Presidency, which was circulated after the government released an internal investigation report exonerating President Zuma and line Cabinet ministers from culpability in the controversial the landing of a private plane at the Waterkloof Airforce Base, said President Zuma had condemned the practice of using his name and that of his Cabinet Ministers to secure privileges or flout government procedures.

“It is unfortunate that some officials and members of the public would resort to that practice of using and abusing the names of Members of Cabinet in this manner to further their own ends, as alleged. We call for vigilance and urge all our officials who are entrusted with managing state institutions not to succumb to pressure from name-droppers. They should immediately report to their superiors and to law enforcement agencies, anyone who behaves in this manner,’’ he said, according to the statement.

President Zuma argued that he did not speak to or authorise any government official to process or approve the landing of the chartered private plane carrying guests from India to a private wedding party at Sun City in Johannesburg, as alleged in the information put before the investigators.

But Mr Zuma’s explanation, like that of his Justice Minister Jeff Radebe when he released the report to Parliament on May 22, did not leave many convinced.

During debate in Parliament, David Maynier, the Shadow Minister of Defence and Military Veterans in the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), said President Zuma could not wash his hands off the scandal because of his close relationship with members of the rich Gupta family who requested for permission to land the plane carrying their Indian visitors.

“The root cause of the problem, which led to ‘Guptagate’, is President Zuma. He is responsible for creating the ‘culture of undue influence’ referred to in the investigation report,” he said. “When the Jet Airways Airbus JAI 9900 landed at the Air Force Base Waterkloof on 30 April 2013, it triggered massive political fallout. Years of frustration with President Zuma’s ‘sugar daddies’, including the Shaiks, the Reddys and the Guptas, who make up ‘Zuma Inc’, exploded”.

Mr Maynier said the entourage to the Gupta wedding party used a three fixed wing aircraft, seven helicopters, 88 vehicles and 490 employees – 194 of them state employees – to support their private function. He argued that it was difficult for anybody to believe that not one minister knew about it all.

Although he credited Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula for having turned down the initial request by the Gupta family to use the military facility, Mr Maynier faulted her for having failed to inform the Secretary of Defence, Sam Gulube, or the Chief of Defence Forces, Gen. Solly Shoke, of her decision.

“We have to ask: in what kind of country does a private individual telephone a minister to request landing rights at a strategic military base? We also have to ask: in what kind of country does a minister turn down a request and then not officially communicate the decision to her senior officials? The minister, evidently, needs to be reminded that she runs a state department, which is responsible for the defence of the country, not a ‘spaza shop’,” he said.

In an analysis of the report, the Mail & Guardian newspaper said although the government had released a comprehensive timeline of events that led up to and immediately after the landing of the plane, major holes remain in the official narrative.

“Chief among those is why at least two officials would risk their careers by lying about the involvement of “Number One”, who they claimed had wanted arrangements to be made for the Gupta jet to land,” says the paper in a report titled, ‘Why the Waterkloof report won’t fly’.

The report says two officials testified that “Number One”, which is assumed to be President Zuma although the duo did not say so explicitly, was aware of the wedding preparations for a member of the Gupta family and had wanted landing permission for the private plane approved. The two are state protocol chief Bruce Koloane, who later recanted his testimony and Lt Col. Christine Anderson, who has stood by hers. According to the Mail & Guardian, Lt Col. Anderson intends to challenge the initial findings of the report, which exonerated the president and cabinet ministers.

In his statement, President Zuma said he welcomed the report and urged the country's law enforcement agencies “to press ahead with any investigations that would be necessary, arising from the report”.

However, Mr Maynier of the DA says the Guptagate scandal should be subjected to an independent investigation. In a statement released after the Parliament debate, he said, “The final report of the investigation reinforces the need for an independent investigation to be conducted by the Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela, into ‘Guptagate’.”

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