SAfrica: officials suspended over wedding scandal

May 03, 2013, 12:15 PM EDT

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — 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 a South African air force base, the government said Friday.

The scandal, in which the passengers allegedly bypassed customs procedures on their way to a gaudy entertainment complex, 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 growing problem.

The government sought to stem public outrage over the incident, launching an investigation into how the Airbus A330 was given permission to land Tuesday at the Waterkloof Air Force Base and ordering it to fly on Thursday to a civilian international airport in Johannesburg. The wedding festivities wrapped up on Friday.

The guests attended the wedding of Vega Gupta, whose Indian immigrant family has powerful business interests in South Africa, and groom Aakash Jahajgarhia in an extravaganza spanning several days at Sun City, a leisure center northwest of Johannesburg. Some South African current and former officials also attended.

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."

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, 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 as 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 a son and a nephew of Zuma were among the guests at the lavish wedding.

SABC, South Africa's state broadcaster, quoted Virendra Gupta, India's high commissioner, as 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. Instead, it said, India's defense attache in South Africa requested clearance from the air force, which consulted the office of state protocol without informing the military chief.

SABC quoted businessman Atul Gupta as saying Gupta investments have brought jobs to South Africa and boosted tourism since the family began operating in the country in the 1990s. Atul Gupta is chairman of the family-owned TNA media group. The family is also involved in technology and other interests.

Photographs of the wedding ceremony showed the couple of traditional Indian attire as they floated on a platform across a pool at the Palace of the Lost City, one of Sun City's deluxe locations. The bride was also photographed joining the groom after stepping out of a sculpture of a giant lotus flower.

While many South African newspapers focused on the scandal, the Gupta-owned The New Age newspaper carried a front-page headline on the event: "A union of elegance and tradition."