At least five South African officials, including police and military commanders, have been suspended after a chartered plane carrying about 200 guests from India to a lavish family wedding was allowed to land at an air force base near Pretoria.
The scandal, in which the passengers allegedly bypassed customs procedures on their way to the wedding venue, has angered many South Africans, who see the episode as a case of cronyism linking big business and the highest levels of government in a country where corruption is a major problem.
The government sought to stem public outrage over the incident, launching an investigation into how the Airbus A330 was given permission to land at the Waterkloof Air Force Base on Tuesday. The wedding festivities wrapped up yesterday.
Bollywood stars and Indian officials are said to have been among the guests who attended the wedding of Vega Gupta, neice of Gupta brothers – Atul, Ajay and Rajesh – whose business empire includes interests in mining, aviation, media and technology industries. They are believed to have wielded enormous influence in South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Ms Gupta married the groom, Aakash Jahajgarhia, in an extravaganza spanning several days at Sun City, a leisure resort northwest of Johannesburg.
Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said the suspended officials included two brigadier generals at the air force base and the head of state protocol, Bruce Koloane.
He said the government is “gravely concerned at this violation of the security protocol and total disregard of established practice for clearing the landing of aircraft in a military facility that is of strategic importance to the country.”
Mr Radebe added: “Our particular concern is that the aircraft was carrying international passengers who do not fit the category of government officials or VIPs on official duty.”
According to authorities, two police officers and a reservist were also arrested for working for a private security company that provided escort vehicles – black BMWs equipped with illegal emergency lights and false registrations – during the wedding guests’ transfer from the military base to Sun City.
Authorities were also investigating the alleged use of marked police vehicles in the incident, Mr Radebe said.
The Democratic Alliance, an opposition political party, said in a statement that parliament should open an investigation and alleged that the government’s reaction was an attempt to protect President Jacob Zuma and Cabinet ministers from the “political fallout” of the scandal by targeting lower-ranking officials.
South African media reports said Mr Zuma’s sons and nephews were among the wedding guests.
SABC, South Africa’s state broadcaster, quoted Virendra Gupta, India’s High Commissioner, saying permission for the plane to land at the base had been requested because of security concerns for VIPs and “senior political figures from India” on the flight.
The South African government, however, said it did not have a record of notification from the Indian High Commission.
The Indian embassy, which has been accused of abusing diplomatic privileges in connection with the wedding, will be investigated.