South African President Jacob Zuma has found himself in yet another embarrassing scandal after it emerged that he may have allowed members of a wealthy and politically connected Indian family, the Guptas, to land their privately chartered aircraft carrying 200 people on a restricted military air base while en route to a family wedding.
The South African Press Association reported Thursday that Zuma has backed out of attending the four-day wedding – dubbed by South African media as the “wedding of the century” costing multimillion rands -- although he was invited and is a close ally of the Gupta family.
The Indian group were on the way to attend the wedding of Vega Gupta, 23, to Indian-born Aaskash Jahajgarhia at Sun City, a luxury casino and resort in northwestern South Africa. Vega is the niece of billionaire brothers Ajay, Rajesh and Atul Gupta.
The Gupta family, which has operated in South Africa since 1993, just after the fall of apartheid, owns The New Age newspaper (through its control of TNA Media), the Sahara Computers company as well as a controlling stake in Shiva Uranium Ltd.
The Guptas have long been allied with Zuma and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party and are one of the richest families in South Africa.
The South African government’s minister for Performance, Monitoring and Evaluation, Collins Chabane, told reporters during a fortnightly press briefing that the government has already launched a probe into how the Guptas were allowed to land a chartered airplane onto the restricted and highly secure Waterkloof air force base -- a facility that is restricted to military officials and foreign government dignitaries -- in Pretoria, the capital.
Allowing private citizens like the Guptas such privileges would be tantamount to a breach of diplomatic conduct as well as posing a national security risk. Several South African government agencies – including the defense ministry -- have already declared they did not provide clearance for the Gupta’s private jet to land at Waterkloof.
At least one senior official, Chief of State Protocol Bruce Koloane, has been placed on suspension while the South African National Defense Force and the South African Revenue Service conduct its investigation into the affair.
In addition, the South African National Police Service also reportedly provided a VIP escort for the Gupta wedding convoy as they drove from Waterkloof to Sun City.
Chabane also said the government will investigate to determine if the Indian High Commission abused its privileges by pressuring South African officials to allow the Guptas to land their plane at Waterkloof.
“If so, the necessary steps will be taken. This is a serious matter,” he said, according to Bloomberg.
However, a spokesman for the Gupta wedding, Haranath Ghosh, claimed that “Waterkloof Air Force base was used with full permission of the authorities to receive foreign dignitaries including some ministers,” reported Bloomberg.
It is unclear if the wedding guest list included any foreign government dignitaries (who would be qualified to use a facility like Waterkloof) -- although The Times of India reported that the wedding guests included a number of Indian government officials, including Uttar Pradesh Urban Development Minister Azam Khan, parliamentary Speaker Mata Prasad Pandey and Public Works Minister Shivpal Singh Yadav. (Nonetheless, since they were not in South Africa on official government business, their use of the air force base would be prohibited).
The Daily Telegraph reported that the guest list also included some Bollywood stars. Once the private jet landed at Waterkloof, normal rules governing customs and immigration were apparently waived by unknown South African authorities.
“It is an absolute insult to the people of South Africa that private individuals can use a public facility for their social activities and that and state officials should escort them,” the Congress of South African Trade Unions, an ally of the ANC, declared in a statement.
Naturally, opposition figures are also attacking Zuma.
Terror Lekota, a former ANC defense minister who is now a member of the opposition, said Zuma is using South Africa as his "personal fiefdom" by granting extraordinary privileges to his wealthy friends.
"There must have been instructions given to the defense force to allow it to land at the air force base," he said. "The president of this country, who is the commander in chief, must answer because the relationship between him and the Guptas has been under question for a long time."
Indeed, the Independent Online newspaper of South Africa reported that Zuma himself is “hopping mad” over the Gupta affair and is demanding answers. IOL noted that Zuma is particularly irate because he knows that his close ties to the Guptas would lead most people to blame him.
Ordinary South African citizens have expressed their views on ‘Gupta-Gate’ on Twitter – with many pointing the finger at Zuma.
“Gareth Cliff” quipped: “I’ll be flying from Gupta Airport from now on. I heard it’s much more convenient than [OR Tambo airport], and quieter, with less red tape.”
“Jo-Ann Strauss” sarcastically wrote: “So angry, my Global Express jet has just been turned away from Waterkloof and I’m late for the Gupta wedding.”
“Chester Missing” declared: “The Gupta wedding is so exciting. First time in history someone will give their kid a country’s president as a wedding gift.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.