South Africa’s government announced the suspension of a slew of officials and military personnel Friday, as it tried to limit the political and diplomatic fallout from a lavish Indian wedding.
A gaggle of top ministers appeared in public to explain how a rich Indian family with ties to President Jacob Zuma landed a Airbus A330 laden with wedding guests at a military base without permits.
The passengers were guests of the Gupta family, a major political donor to the ruling ANC and one of the country’s richest families.
The scandal has rocked South Africa and left Zuma facing allegations of cronyism from political foes and rare public rebukes from his allies.
In a statement, Zuma’s office said the leader welcomed the probes into the incident by the relevant government departments.
“The president has emphasised that the investigation and the manner in which this matter is handled should not be allowed to impact negatively on the warm and friendly historical relations” between the two countries, it added.
Attempting to defuse the crisis, minister after minister on Friday insisted “no executive authority” was granted for the plane to land at Waterkloof airforce base outside Pretoria on Tuesday.
Justice Minister Jeffrey Radebe — flanked by the ministers for home affairs, foreign affairs, police and defence — announced that five officials and military personnel had been suspended from duty.
He vowed to bring to justice those who “brought the country into disrepute” and said a full investigation will report within seven days.
Two police officers and one reservist have also been arrested in connection with a blue-light escort that took the guests from the airport to the Sun City resort where the wedding took place.
It was claimed that most of the vehicles in the cavalcade were privately hired and illegally fitted with blue lights, although at least one police vehicle was present.
But the finger of blame was also pointed at India’s high Commissioner to South Africa, who appeared to have asked for landing rights.
“We have a diplomatic incident at hand,” said Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, vowing to use diplomatic channels to voice its displeasure.
Relations between South Africa and India are already strained following a BRICS summit in Durban in March, when Zuma failed to have a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Zuma did manage bilateral meetings with his Chinese and Russian counterparts.
The wedding party left South Africa on Friday, but the political fallout is likely to continue for weeks.
One of the guests Rajesh Gupta, said that they did not intend to “breach any law,” as the delegation waited to board their flight through the country’s main hub, OR Tambo International Airport.
“We are law-abiding citizens, we want to follow the rules,” he said.
“We don’t want to embarrass anybody, we don’t want to create any problems for anybody in South Africa,” he said.
Some members of the party were seen reading newspapers about the wedding scandal, which has dominated headlines since their controversial arrival on Tuesday.
The trade union umbrella group COSATU, which forms one pillar of the ANC’s ruling “tripartite alliance” expressed its anger over the issue.
“We still await any proper explanation or justification for the decision to allow this invasion of a national security key-point by a bunch of private individuals,” said secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi.
“We must demand the fullest possible investigation into the whole incident and the real culprits exposed – not scapegoats from among the officials, who surely could not have taken such an obviously politically sensitive decision.”
Reflecting the ties between Zuma and the Gupta family, two of the president’s children have served as directors of Gupta-owned firms, according to South Africa’s companies database.
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