Minister in the presidency for women, youth and persons with disabilities Maite Nkoana-Mashabane testifies at the commission of inquiry into state capture on Thursday November 21 2019. Picture: SOWETAN/VELI NHLAPO
Minister in the presidency for women, youth and persons with disabilities Maite Nkoana-Mashabane testifies at the commission of inquiry into state capture on Thursday November 21 2019. Picture: SOWETAN/VELI NHLAPO

A visibly agitated minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has dismally failed to defend her decision to recommend disgraced senior department official Bruce Koloane as SA's ambassador to The Hague.

Nkoana-Mashabane, who was the minister of international relations and co-operation under former president Jacob Zuma, recommended Koloane's appointment to The Hague just months after he had been charged for facilitating the landing of a private plane for Gupta family wedding guests at the restricted Waterkloof Air Force Base. 

The Gupta brothers, immigrants from India, were close friends of Zuma and are central to state capture allegations.

On Thursday, Nkoana-Mashabane appeared before deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo to testify about the Waterkloof landing.

When she was grilled about her decision by commission chairman Raymond Zondo and his evidence leader, Advocate Thandi Norman, Nkoana-Mashabane often became incoherent.

Asked why Koloane was rewarded with a plum ambassadorial posting to The Hague soon after being suspended for two months from work for the transgression, the minister first said Koloane had already been punished for his actions. Denying him the opportunity would have been a double punishment, she said.

A little later, she shifted the blame to the Netherlands, saying they had accepted Koloane’s credentials without checking his background.

As the political head of the ministry, she penned a letter to Zuma in June 2014 nominating Koloane for the ambassador position. However, in the letter she did not mention that Koloane had been recently suspended for his involvement in the illegal Waterkloof landing.

She told Zondo that although she had not mentioned it in the recommendation letter, she did tell Zuma about it “face to face”. 

Koloane, who was head of state protocol at the time of the landing, testified to the commission in July this year and assumed most of the responsibility for the April 2013 incident in which a private plane carrying about 200 guests to the wedding of Vega Gupta and Aakash Jahajgarhia was allowed to land at Waterkloof. Blue-light convoys whisked the guests off to Sun City.  

He admitted to abusing diplomatic channels to facilitate the landing, misrepresenting facts to senior officials in the defence department and compromising normal procedures.

He pleaded guilty to three charges in a disciplinary hearing and was suspended without pay for two months before returning to work.

He was then chosen, out of 17 other applicants, for the post of SA ambassador to the Netherlands.

“Koloane happened to be available when we had the vacancy in that particular country and because he had gone through all the processes, we put his name also and even the receiving country did not reject him,” she said.  

“It would have been a ‘post-punishment’ punishment (not to recommend him after he served his suspension). When you nominate, you nominate. We had no other way of keeping him paid sitting at home doing nothing, and we can’t say go home because we had no reason,” the visibly agitated minister said.

Norman asked her why, if Koloane had been found guilty of abusing diplomatic channels, she thought he would be right for the position of ambassador to The Hague.  

“We have a diplomat who had a mishap and had also served [his sentence] and came back ... there was no telltale evidence that he had not learnt.” 

Upon further questioning, she said it had been up to the Netherlands to turn down Koloane. 

“It is for the receiving country to say we cannot receive so and so because of the following. That Waterkloof saga was all over the country, it wasn’t top secret, he had been suspended, he had served.

“The disciplinary process did not say 'fire him', it did not say 'send him to jail'. None of the processes said he cannot continue [being a deputy director-general], and if he can continue being DDG, we saw no reason why we could not use his experience in that space at that time,” she said. 

The commission will continue on Monday next week.