The power of No. 1

Njabulo Ndebele e1364041958246 The power of No. 1

In the first of a two-part series, Njabulo S Ndebele details the Guptas’ landing at Waterkloof and the role played by . . .

The drama came to public attention on the morning of April 30 2013, when Indian Jet Airways charter Airbus A330-200 flight JAI 9900 landed at Air Force Base Waterkloof between 6.50am and 7am. But this landing was the climax to a series of events that had already begun on an unspecified date in February.

On one day in that month, the first major character in the drama walked on to the stage. His name was Tony (otherwise known as Rajesh) Gupta.

The setting was a meeting that Tony Gupta requested with Airports Company SA (Acsa). Present were several people of high status: then minister of transport Ben Martins; the chief of state protocol, Ambassador VB Koloane; and the acting managing director of Acsa, Bongani Maseko.

They discussed Tony Gupta’s request for the use of OR Tambo International Airport for “an elaborate welcoming ceremony” upon the arrival of “at least five heads of state, ministers and senior Indian government officials” to a “four-day wedding event at Sun City”. But his request was not considered practical for OR Tambo and was denied.

On another unspecified day, this time in March, Atul Gupta, the brother of Tony, entered the stage. He had “approached” another person of high status, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

One can glean that one of the outcomes of this meeting was that the Guptas realised that OR Tambo was no longer a practical entry point and, in all likelihood, this led to the prospect of Air Force Base Waterkloof being suggested as an alternative. But we have no details of what was actually discussed between Atul Gupta and Mapisa-Nqakula.

The official report
The reason for that is that details like these are lacking in the formal government report into the Guptagate scandal.

The report, by the justice, crime prevention, and security cluster, is titled Investigation into the Landing of a Chartered Commercial Aircraft at Air Force Base Waterkloof on April 30 2013.

People who seem basically competent prepared the report. They strive towards a professional account. But their evaluative judgment seems to be compromised by their location in the structure of government authority.

As one continues to read their account of the drama, the stage becomes crowded.

The defence minister’s political adviser, Michael Ramagoma, was “approached” by Ashu Chawla “on behalf of the Gupta family”.

Ramagoma then “approached” the chief of the SA Air Force, Lieutenant General Zakes Msimang.

The report reads: “The chief of state protocol (also referred to as ‘ambassador’) contacted the political adviser to enquire as to the progress with the request.”

It was at this point that the ambassador stated “he was ‘under pressure from No. 1’ on the matter”.

The report establishes two vital issues at this stage of the story. The first is that the minister of defence “denied permission for a landing at the base”. Secondly, the chief of the air force informed the political adviser “it would be irregular for aircraft carrying Indian wedding guests to land at the base”, and further advised “the matter should not be entertained any further”.

There is something “finish and klaar” about this declaration, which raises the question why Indian Jet Airways charter Airbus A330-200 flight JAI 9900 still went on to land at the base.

The consequences of a subordinate officer going against decisions by a defence minister and an air force chief, without consulting either of them again, must be close to unimaginable.

Yet it appears to have happened.

According to the report, two more significant players entered the stage. Sergeant Major Thabo Ntshisi, at the Air Force Command Post, repeated to the ambassador, in his own way, the earlier position taken by the air force chief.

The ambassador pressed that the minister of defence “had no objections”, the minister of transport had instructions from the president “to assist the Gupta family”, and one of the outcomes of the Acsa meeting with Tony Gupta was that the ambassador had been “told to assist” as “this was a unique case”.

Ntshisi demanded written confirmation of the request. He became the first person in this entire episode who demanded a record. But the intrepid ambassador had the last word: “The challenge was that this could not be put in writing,” he explained.

Making no headway with Sergeant Major Ntshisi, the ambassador escalated the matter to Lieutenant Colonel Christine Anderson, who, in turn, questioned Sergeant Major Ntshisi on how “such a request from such an officer could have (been) refused”.

Anderson was decisive: “In confidentiality (sic), I must be very careful now, our Number 1 knows about this. It is political. Allow them.”
To further protestations from Ntshisi, Anderson said “it would be acceptable for a private visit if the department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco) approves. It is not a problem. Yes my dear, they can”.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The implications
What the report does not discuss is what both the defence minister and the air force chief did or did not do as events gathered momentum. The report merely highlights the culpability of officers a little below the top.

Equally absent is any mention of the role of the Dirco minister, despite the fact that officers subordinate to her in Dirco seemed to know about the developments in emails circulating in the department hinting at the ambassador’s “telephonic approvals”.

If you accept what the report is telling us, you would have to conclude that not a single record of significance can be found to authenticate any of these events, which no senior state officer, civilian or military, appears to have been capable of anticipating.

But the absence of such telling detail in a state report can only point to unofficial, but powerful, sources that remain not only unnamed, but unnamable.

Who is really fooled? Of course, events of such magnitude and organisational complexity could not happen without the knowledge and approval of senior players located at levels with the authority, written or verbal, to make them happen.

Ignorance at this level of authority is as culpable as knowing. If it’s true, for instance, that our minister of defence had no idea our borders were being breached by a foreign visitor, why does she still have a job?

The gaps in the record may, on their own (and if you believe they are genuine gaps), be evidence of serious dysfunctionality at levels of government where such dysfunctionality undermines the state’s credibility.

With the seat of government, the Union Buildings, near enough to Waterkloof to take in the smell of indignity, the Gupta brothers, acting off stage, made visible what could easily be seen as the farcical governance of a country once led by Nelson Mandela.

A few weeks later, the president of the most powerful country in the world landed at the same base.

Whichever way we may look at the entire event, the Guptas’ feat is grounds for enormous ego gratification for them.

An odour that will linger
Although they did not even remotely deserve it, it is the experience of a lifetime for wedding guests to be treated like heads of state, and it is an unforgettable gift for the bridal couple.

The family history of the Guptas will have it as a timeless highlight that they came from India and duped an entire country, with impunity.

On the other hand, how does it feel, in the wake of such indignity, to be a member of the South African government or a senior military officer of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF)?

Compared with the stories the Guptas can tell their children of how resourceful and gritty they were, what message of how to run a country will this government be able to leave for the people of South Africa?

Who exists in government or the military with the authority and independence to probe extensively, and with depth, the thinking and conduct of officers closer to the mysterious source of untoward instructions?

From several readings, I could not come to the conclusion that Koloane, Anderson, or even the Guptas and the Indian High Commissioner could possible be the only ones to carry culpability. Who would be that naive?

Air Force Base Waterkloof, the report reminds us, is a strategic military base that falls under the Defence Act. In addition to serving as an entry point to South Africa, “it has even more stringent security measures”.

Whatever these measures were, they were not stringent enough to prevent civilians with undocumented approval from using the base for private purposes.

But of course the measures are, in fact, stringent. Something in the system rendered them ineffective. One officer who had more than enough authority to prevent a landing without approval was, doubtlessly, the air force chief.

He attempted to show his authority early on in the saga by pointing out a civilian plane could not be allowed to land at the base and the matter was not to be pursued.

So, if he does have status within the air force command structure, how exactly did his authority and power come to be countermanded? That is a question the report makes no attempt to answer.

Was it by the chief of the SANDF? Or beyond that, was it, as many suspect, a direct instruction from the commander in chief of the armed forces, the president of the republic?

Or was it, perhaps, the minister of defence? After taking a position that the request from the Guptas would not be entertained, did she then change her mind? If so, why? Was she overruled or simply ignored? If either was the case, who undermined her?

Could she herself have received an instruction from “Number 1”? Worse still, if this Number 1 did not want to show his or her hand, then the instruction would have had to be conveyed to her by someone on behalf of the president, or by whoever or whatever Number 1 is, a force without definition.

This force takes no responsibility for being the source of Koloane’s confidence that the minister of defence “had no objection” to the Gupta request.

But, all the same, the insidious power of Number 1 implicitly absolves Koloane of inventing and invoking the consent and authority of someone in a higher office.

Koloane may thus be accused of lacking professional rectitude and the courage to stand by the professional demands of his work, but he cannot be accused of not being willing to serve Number 1.

The common denominator in all this is Number 1. Who, really, is Number 1? Part 2 will seek to answer this question.

» Ndebele is a fellow at the archive and public culture research initiative at the University of Cape Town, and is a fellow of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study

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