c.2013 New York Times News Service
JOHANNESBURG — It was to be an affair to remember. The bride was a daughter of a powerful and politically connected immigrant family. Her parents booked all 338 rooms in one of South Africa’s most lavish resorts, complete with exclusive access to its artificial beach. Kathakali dancers with painted faces and turbaned Rajasthani musicians from the family’s native country, India, performed for the guests. A pontoon carried the happy couple across an imitation Roman bath to greet their guests.
But the ultimate luxury for the wedding guests came upon their arrival. Rather than disembarking among hoi polloi at the Johannesburg commercial airport, guests from India in a chartered jet were allowed to land at one of the country’s highly secure military bases. Visitors were then ushered to the wedding site, the Palace of the Lost City, in luxury vehicles accompanied by a sprawling security escort, sirens blaring.
The use of a military air base to transport civilian guests to the wedding of a member of the Gupta family, who are close allies of President Jacob Zuma, has set off outrage, saddling Zuma with his latest scandal. Even some of the president’s biggest supporters have jumped on the bandwagon.
“We are not living in a banana republic,” Jeremy Cronin, a leader of the South African Communist Party, said in a speech Thursday. “We are not a playground for rich foreigners to come and occupy our space, to come and take over a national key point.”
The wedding of Vega Gupta and Aakash Jahajgarhia, like most Indian weddings, took place over several days and involved multiple ceremonies. Top government officials, including Zuma, were invited as guests, but Zuma canceled plans to attend amid the uproar over the plane.
The African National Congress, Zuma’s party, has reacted with unusual swiftness to respond to the accusation that the Gupta family received special treatment, suspending several officials in the government protocol service, the police and the military.
“The government would like to assure the South African public 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,” Jeff Radebe, the country’s justice minister, said in televised remarks Friday.
Government officials said they had no record of giving the jet permission to land at the military base, which is outside the capital, Pretoria, and is closer to Sun City, where the wedding was held, than Johannesburg’s international airport.
The Guptas arrived in South Africa in the early 1990s, just as the country was in the midst of its transition from white rule to multiracial democracy. They grew wealthy through multiple investments, including Sahara Computers and The New Age, a newspaper.
One of the brothers in the family, Atul Gupta, offered a defense in an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corp., declaring that “hundreds of people are getting jobs; there is a boost to the tourism,” as a result of the wedding. He said that the jet had been cleared to land at Waterkloof Air Base.
“No airplane in the world can land without permission,” he said.
This is not the first scandal to engulf Zuma. In 2005, he was fired as deputy president by his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, as he faced a bevy of corruption charges. Also that year, he was charged with raping the daughter of a family friend. The corruption charges were later dropped amid accusations of prosecutorial misconduct, and he was acquitted of the rape charge.
But the whiff of scandal has followed him, even as he assumed the presidency in 2008. Last year, he faced tough questions about $25 million in upgrades performed at his personal compound in the village where he was born, Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal province.