The approval of the Gupta family’s landing request at Waterkloof Airforce Base in 2013 was an “issue of pure misunderstanding” according to the then chief of state protocol, Bruce Koloane.
Koloane was referring to an email his personal assistant sent, where she wrote that he “telephonically approved” the landing request. According to Koloane, the wording reflected a misunderstanding on her side or a miscommunication from his side.
Koloane was speaking before the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture on Monday, where he gave his version of the story.
Koloane is the only person who underwent disciplinary proceedings and was held responsible for the landing incident following an investigation by the justice, crime prevention and security cluster soon after the landing.
The commission — headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo — is currently focused on the infamous landing, at Waterkloof, of a plane full of guests for a Gupta family wedding at Sun City. This incident brought attention to the family and opened the door to revelations about their alleged role in state capture.
Koloane explained that he received a phone call from the high commissioner of India, asking him to follow up on his request for flight clearance — he wanted to know why it was taking so long to process the request, submitted six days before when clearances normally took two to three days.
According to Koloane’s testimony, he received this call when he was out of the office but he asked his personal assistant to follow up with the people in the department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco), who handle such requests.
Koloane’s personal assistant followed up and found that the flight clearance request was not sent to Dirco, as it should have been, but rather to the department of defence. Koloane said the documentation submitted by the high commissioner included everything that was required, so he called a defence official and asked him to “process the request”.
“I was just acting purely under the presumption that there had been total compliance,” he said at the commission. “It’s important to note that I didn’t say approve or decline the request. I just said process the request so the process of clearance can be conducted. I do not have the mandate or power to dictate to anyone. I could never order an official from another department to issue [a clearance].”
In his evidence, Koloane said that the defence official said they hadn’t processed the request because the note verbale was not attached to the application. Koloane said he told the official to revert back to the high commissioner and tell him that the request is not complete.
A note verbale is diplomatic correspondence between two states that details the nature of the visit, purpose, the dates and whether the visit is state, official, working or private.
According to Koloane, his main responsibility as chief of state protocol was the “maintenance of cordial relations between South Africa and other states” and that declining or approving landing requests at Waterkloof Base was the responsibility of the defence department.
Jerry Matjila, the director-general of Dirco in 2013, testified on Monday that three charges were laid against Koloane after an investigation implicated him and found that he misrepresented facts to procure the unlawful landing of the aircraft at the Waterkloof Airbase.
On May 27 2013, Koloane was issued with a notice of his disciplinary hearing. Koloane represented himself before the disciplinary hearing and pleaded guilty to the charges, according to Matjila.
“Koloane was issued with a final written warning and suspension for two months without pay. This was implemented,” Matjila said.
Koloane is now South African ambassador to the Netherlands. His testimony continues.