Illegal immigrants in a chartered jet touch down at a highly secure air force base and are treated to a police escort to a garish wedding.
Apart from anything else, this was a blatant disregard of South Africa’s sovereignty and represented a massive security risk. And the only people who cared at the time were journalists.
Appearing in front of the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture on Monday was ambassador Jerry Matthews Matjila.
At the time of the arrival of the illegal immigrants at the Waterkloof Air Force Base in 2013, he was director-general/permanent secretary of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco). He now represents South Africa at the UN Security Council (full title: ‘Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary and Permanent Representative of the Republic of South Africa to the United Nations, New York’).
It is not comforting to know that Matjila first became aware of this globe-trotting wedding party when he read about it in the papers: “The news and the social media was busy.”
Nevertheless, what followed was a long-winded account of his career, political contacts, and detailed explanations of protocol and the raison d’être for “note verbales” (diplomatic communications), accompanied by examples – none of which were remotely connected to the extraordinary scenario of illegal aliens being welcomed at a secure military airport.
Matjila did, however, clarify that he would not have been made aware of the intended “visit” as it was not a head of state visit nor an official government visit.
Advocate Thandi Norman SC asked Matjila to summarise what ambassadors actually do for the country.
“Chair, ambassadors are called plenipotentiary and extraordinaire,” he replied. “In other words, they are the trusted representatives of the head of state … the ears, the eyes, and the spokesperson.”
It quite boggles the mind.
What is the process when requesting landing rights at Waterkloof?
Matjila details the protocol to be followed when SA is to be visited by a foreign minister: Dirco receives a note verbale from the foreign mission, and protocol takes over to ascertain the purpose, timing, and nature of the visit. Then the machinery kicks in to cater for the arranging of transport, venues, accommodation, meetings, security, and documentation required.
And the protocol to be followed when foreigners inexplicably land at a military airport and don’t even have to clear customs? This was neither asked nor answered.
Certain high-profile head-of-state visits require specific security arrangements, and others present a security risk. Not so for the Gupta wedding guests – no security checks, no profiling.
Matjila’s actions after Waterkloof debacle
After the “media hype” Matjila called a meeting with Dirco spokesperson Clayson Monyela and Bruce Koloane, who was chief of state protocol at the time as is now SA ambassador to the Netherlands. After that they met with the minister of International Relations and Cooperation at the time, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.
Matjila also called the then Indian high commissioner to South Africa, his excellency Virendra Gupta (unrelated to the Guptas) and tried to establish who the guests were. The high commissioner said there weren’t any ministers, only “state ministers” – equivalent to an MEC (member of the executive committee) in SA.
However, no note verbale had been issued. Dirco had not even been informally notified. According to Matjila the Indian high commissioner apologised for this “oversight”.
Is an apology all that is required for a flagrant breach of protocol and a country’s sovereignty?
Military airport vs civilian airport
Matjila said that if it was a real wedding party (Judge Zondo interrupted to say that it was) then they would have gone to a civilian airport. If civilians land at a military base they require documentation to say why they have come to a highly secure area.
“The jet ought to have landed in a civilian airport,” said Matjila. He added: “Once you go to a military base, the civilian part goes away, because now you are coming to a very exclusive area, a sensitive security area, so you need to provide documentation.”
This did not explain how the Gupta jet – an Airbus A330-200 owned by Jet Airways – had landed at a highly secure military airport, nor how the illegal aliens had traipsed off without clearing customs, disappearing into the night.
When Matjila tried to track down the “aliens”, apparent unnamed “ministers” were missing. Some had chartered an aircraft to fly to Cape Town. Others had left for Dubai via Emirates.
Zondo said it was apparent there were no meetings with government ministers and that this appeared to be a completely private visit. Matjila, reluctant to agree, said that some of the visitors allegedly went privately to the Free State to meet with officials there. However, he is not sure, it was all cloaked in secrecy, and he was not privy to their programme. There is no official documentation to indicate where anyone was.
In essence, Matjila described a textbook account of protocol and inter-governmental engagements. None of this shed any light on how the Gupta wedding guests slipped into the country.