by Stef Terblanche

Questions remain unanswered about Guptagate

Half an investigation has been done

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe acted as chairperson of cabinet’s Justice, Crime Prevention and Security (JCPS) cluster in the case of the Guptas landing at an Air Force Base
Jeff Radebe.jpg

The report of the government’s own investigation into the Guptagate affair will be remembered for what it did not reveal rather than what it did. It failed to deal with some of the most serious issues involved, oversimplified its findings on others, and shielded the president and cabinet ministers from any responsibility – casting an alarming shadow over good, ethical, accountable and transparent government.

A central issue not substantially dealt with is President Jacob Zuma’s role in the creation of the “culture of undue influence” to which the report refers.

The question is not so much whether Zuma or any ministers knew about, or were directly involved in granting permission for a private Gupta family chartered jet to land at Waterkloof Air Force Base.

The question is rather that if they did not know, why didn’t they; why was there such a massive failure, or absence of security and procedural systems to prevent such an incident; and why are Zuma – as commander-in-chief – and ministers as political heads of the departments involved, not accepting final responsibility? Surely the buck stops with them and not the officials who have been suspended.


Damage control

Government may be right in saying it acted swiftly and decisively in exposing the actions of officials and others involved. It should be noted, however, that the report does not deal with the underlying fundamentals that made this breach possible.

From the report, it seems clear that government narrowly focused it on fingering officials who were involved and on a process of damage control led by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe as chairperson of cabinet’s Justice, Crime Prevention and Security (JCPS) cluster – a role to which he should be accustomed by now as President Zuma’s ‘Mr fix-it’.

Given some of the initial official responses and delays, observers can be forgiven for suspecting an initial cover-up attempt, only replaced under severe public and political pressure with a process of damage control and shielding the president and cabinet ministers against the fallout.

Even the initial outrage among some members of the African National Congress – most notably secretary-general Gwede Mantashe – was quickly replaced with a closing of the ranks around the president.

Mantashe later even said Zuma did not have to explain his relationship with the Guptas to anyone.

While acceding to opposition parties’ demands for a snap parliamentary debate, the ANC rejected demands for Zuma to be present, since he is “not a member of parliament" and claiming the affair had nothing to do with him, although “name-dropping” was eventually reported as the core cause of the affair.

During the debate, Radebe accused opposition parties of reaching a verdict based on their own “fabricated conclusions” and “lacking any of the facts”. However, opposition parties barely had time to prepare for the debate, given the last-minute release of the report and its avoidance of some crucial issues.


What the report says

The report sets out in painstaking detail – and rather repetitively – the sequence of events, who was involved, and which procedures were followed or not followed. There seems, however, to be some inconsistencies and contradictions between the report’s version of events and that of the Indian High Commission and the media – the latter based on leaked documents. 

The report outlines how the Gupta family first unsuccessfully approached the Airports Company South Africa for special privileges at OR Tambo International Airport and also unsuccessfully approached the minister of defence to allow the use of Waterkloof Air Force Base for landing their privately chartered jet. 

According to the report, the Guptas then resorted to “the use of 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 the Air Force Base Waterkloof under the cover of diplomatic privilege”.

The report goes on to list a number of regulatory, procedural, legal and protocol contraventions by officials involved, largely attributed to the Chief of State Protocol at the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, Ambassador Vusi Bruce Koloane; Lieutenant-Colonel Christine Anderson in charge of movement control at Waterkloof; as well as the Indian High Commission. Transgressions by police and other individuals who provided security and a road escort are also listed.

The report clearly shows how the Gupta family used its influence and manipulated processes with the help of individuals at the Indian High Commission. It further shows how the latter made false representations to Koloane regarding the status of the people on the aircraft. Koloane, in turn, resorted to name-dropping: hinting at approval and the blessing of the president and several ministers.

It is this lie that probably secured Colonel Anderson’s co-operation, although the report is not quite clear on this aspect. Koloane and Anderson then exerted what the report calls “undue influence” on a non-commissioned officer of the air force to complete the paperwork.

In his address to Parliament, Radebe said Koloane and Anderson went on “a frolic of their own” and were “masters of this manipulation of process", and insisted they were not being made scapegoats.

Due to the nature of his work, however, Koloane probably knew the officials at the Indian High Commission. From the report it appears that for some unmentioned reason, Koloane was willing to take the risk of manipulating procedures and protocol, resorting to name-dropping and using the Gupta family’s false information.

Koloane was interviewed by the investigators.There is no mention that Anderson was interviewed, yet her alleged role is lumped together with Koloane’s. It is not stated whether she acted after possibly having been influenced and misled by Koloane, or whether she knew the Indian High Commissioner or anyone else connected to the Guptas – but it seems unlikely she did.

It would appear the only reason she took such a risk would be to accommodate Koloane based on the false information presented to her. It would seem unfair for Radebe to claim she went “on a frolic” of her own with Koloane. This strengthens the scapegoat theory.

From the report it is clear the Guptas or their representatives, the Indian High Commission and Koloane, lied to the air force, other state entities and the police to obtain landing clearance at the air base and a police escort to Sun City. The official ‘ministerial delegation’ failed. 

The report states that “the aircraft in question was cleared for landing and the correct clearance procedures were followed, but based on false pretences as a result of the manipulation of the process” by all the parties mentioned.

This had the potential of damaging the good relations between South Africa and India, it said.

It also had the potential to compromise the credibility of the government, and could have caused severe reputational damage to the state itself.

Furthermore, the report found that the exercise of “this undue influence undermined good governance, legislative stipulations, regulations, departmental protocols and standard operating procedures”.

Rather simplistically, the report put it all down to a “culture of name-dropping”, the “exercise of undue influence”, manipulation of processes, poor ethical conduct, a lack of professionalism, and criminal activities uncovered in the investigation which “are a manifestation of a deep-seated organised crime culture waiting to be unleashed on the country”.

The report further shows gaping holes in security and procedural systems. One example is that of confidential information in the process of obtaining landing clearance having been sent by a member of the air force to the private fax number of a former SA Revenue Service employee who had left the organisation over a year ago.

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula effectively admitted the security weaknesses during the discussion of her budget vote in Parliament last week and promised it would receive attention.

 

Unanswered questions

  • Why was such a poor security and procedural system in place, full of gaping holes compromising security, and why did no officials or ministers pick up on how the Guptas had changed the reason for seeking the landing permission from being private to being a diplomatic one after their initial efforts had failed?

  • Why were officials further down the command and operational chain not informed after more than one approach for permission was refused by the minister of Defence?

  • Why was the system so susceptible to manipulation?

  • What created, allowed for and facilitated the so-called “culture of name-dropping” and undue influence?

  • What, if any, steps will be taken by India to hold to account the responsible official at the Indian High Commission and to avoid similar incidents in future; and

  • If President Zuma is neither accountable to parliament nor the ANC for his relationships to high-profile businesspeople, where does his accountability then lie?

 

Apparently the report finds nothing strange in the fact that Zuma’s name was used indirectly (referred to as “Number One”), given the well-known relationship he and his family has with the Gupta family.

There have been numerous reports of the president visiting the family at their home after meetings of the cabinet and the ANC’s national executive committee.

Members of his family are in business with the Guptas and, according to reports, the Guptas are allegedly paying the bond on a house belonging to one of Zuma’s wives.

And one of the Guptas was hosted in the presidential enclosure in parliament when the president delivered his State of the Nation address earlier this year.

Yet the investigators and the ANC refuse to entertain the possibility that Zuma’s relationship with the Guptas might have allowed and facilitated the so-called “culture of name-dropping and exercising of undue influence”.

Instead, the report fully exonerates him and members of the cabinet of any responsibility, despite some of them having been closely involved in the developments or being the political heads of departments that were involved.

For more facts about what really went down, the public will have to wait for the Public Protector’s report, the outcome of internal disciplinary proceedings against other officials, and the court cases of six officials charged criminally.

Even then the Public Protector may probe only certain aspects and not have access to the entire paper trail. The evidence led at the disciplinary hearings may not be made public and the court cases will deal only with those specific aspects involving the accused.

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