BIG BROTHERS: Ajay and Atul Gupta. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
Ajay Gupta, left, and Atul Gupta. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

THE government scrambled to save face on Thursday as the Gupta wedding row widened, moving on several fronts to defuse the embarrassing fallout from the influential family commandeering Waterkloof air force base — a national key point — to land an aircraft ferrying in guests from India for a celebrity wedding.

A slew of denials and investigations, the suspension of the chief of state protocol, the hurried removal of the chartered jet from Waterkloof to OR Tambo, and wounded protestations from the Gupta family emerged on Thursday as the wedding of 23-year-old Vega Gupta and Aakash Jahajgarhia drew to a close at Sun City.

The Department of International Relations and Co-operation said chief of state protocol Bruce Koloane had been suspended.

"Preliminary investigations have revealed the need to probe the circumstances under which the clearances for the aircraft to land was secured," the department said. It viewed the matter "in a very serious light".

The government’s swift reaction followed a harsh rebuke by African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and equally critical comments from opposition parties as well as trade union and communist allies.

Mr Mantashe said earlier this week that the ANC "shall never allow a situation where our ports of entry and national key points are penetrated with impunity".

The Gupta family — Indian nationals said to be close to President Jacob Zuma have extensive business interests in South Africa in the form of Sahara Computers and The New Age newspaper — are no strangers to controversy. Family members have been accused of receiving preferential treatment from the state and exerting undue influence over ministers.

The Departments of Defence and International Relations and Co-operation and the police will all investigate how the family was able to use Waterkloof to fly in wedding guests, Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane told a post-Cabinet media briefing on Thursday.

The South African Revenue Service has indicated it will probe whether customs were bypassed when the guests entered South Africa.

Mr Chabane insisted that neither Mr Zuma nor Defence and Military Veterans Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula gave any form of instruction that the air base could be used by the wide-body aircraft that flew in more than 200 of the Guptas’ wedding guests.

The South African National Defence Force confirmed that the family’s chartered jet had been removed after an order from Ms Mapisa-Nqakula.

The minister said in a statement that a representative from Sahara had approached her department for assistance "in approving a request that was to be sent by the Indian high commissioner for the use of the air force base".

The request was rejected, she said, and the ministry considered the matter closed.

"It had never been our expectation therefore that attempts would then be made to find other avenues to try and secure the use of the air force base through the diplomatic channel at the Department of International Relations and Co-operation," she said.

The request had then been dealt with by the Office of the Chief of State Protocol.

The Gupta family said on Thursday that it was "saddened" by the "negative reporting" around the wedding despite its "genuine attempts" to give Vega and her husband-to-be a dream wedding.

The venue for the wedding was selected to "tempt other Indian families" to use South Africa instead of going to Mauritius or Thailand.

"For the record, the family has obtained each and every permission for any and every part of the event," said family spokesman Haranath Ghosh. He said the family was "not directly involved in the Waterkloof incident" but had been assured by the Indian high commission that proper processes were followed.

Indian high commissioner in South Africa Virendra Gupta could not be reached for comment. Employees at the high commission in Pretoria referred all media queries to him.

Mr Ghosh denied that any police escorts were being used by the family and welcomed the investigations into the matter, hoping that it would end the "ongoing negativity".

This was after Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa noted that police VIP protection resources had been used to transport some guests from Waterkloof to Sun City.

Mr Mthethwa said a preliminary probe indicated that there might have been "transgressions and violations" by South African Police Service officials in deploying resources to the event, the possible abuse of police blue lights and the "possible moonlighting as police officers by private security individuals" hired by event organisers.

Mr Mthethwa said he had instructed police commissioner Riah Phiyega to investigate.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) also weighed in on the matter, saying that it would look into allegations of racial discrimination against African workers by the wedding guests.

Cosatu North West secretary Solly Phetoe said he would visit Sun City on Friday to talk to workers who claim that guests at the wedding did not want to be served by Africans employed at the resort, and demanded that white employees attend to them.