Former South African president Jacob Zuma was at the center of a looting spree at state institutions, a judicial inquiry found, upping pressure on authorities to prosecute him.
Zuma played a pivotal role in helping the Gupta brothers, who were his friends and business partners of his son, illicitly secure state contracts and tenders, and fired officials who tried to stand in their way, Acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, who headed the panel, said in an initial report.
He also found the once highly-regarded national tax agency was rendered ineffectual at the ex-president’s behest and the state security agency’s resources were irregularly used to his benefit.
Evidence presented to the commission suggested that Zuma “could do terrible things to give effect to the wishes of the Guptas,” such as firing Nhlanhla Nene as his finance minister because he refused to cooperate with them, Zondo said in the report released on Tuesday. The influence the Guptas “exerted over former President Zuma was considerable,” he said.
The panel identified a pattern of executive interference and political overreach at state firms, and said the evidence suggested Zuma, 79, was among those who were regularly interfered with their operations.
That included ensuring executives were removed from their posts at the state power utility and replaced by Gupta associates, and helping his close ally Dudu Myeni retain her post as chairwoman of the state airline, despite a litany of failings.
The carrier was later placed in a form of bankruptcy protection and the government is now selling a majority stake to private investors.
Zondo’s 874-page report mentions Zuma’s name more than 150 times, but doesn’t spell out whether he benefited financially from any misdeeds, or make direct recommendations that he be investigated further or prosecuted.
The judge is due to finalize two other reports by the end of next month, and based on the more than three years of testimony the ex-president’s name is likely to also feature prominently in those.
A former intelligence operative, Zuma led South Africa from May 2009 to February 2018, when the ruling African National Congress forced him to step down to curb a loss of electoral support. The government estimates that more than R500 billion ($31.5 billion) was stolen from the state during his rule.
Zuma, who is currently on trial for allegedly taking bribes from arms dealers in the 1990s, has consistently denied wrongdoing, as have the Guptas and Myeni. The former president needs time to study the commission’s findings before commenting, Mzwanele Manyi, a spokesman for the Jacob Zuma Foundation, said by phone on Wednesday.
Zuma appeared before Zondo in 2019, but his lawyers frustrated the panel’s attempts to cross-examine him.
He then flouted a court order to testify again and was sentenced to 15 months in jail, but the prisons department freed him on medical parole after less than two months – a decision that’s being contested in court. His jailing triggered riots that claimed 354 lives in the worst violence since the end of apartheid.
“Mr. Zuma fled the commission completely without any valid reason,” Zondo wrote. “He did not want to account to the nation. He knew he was not going to have answers to many of the questions that were bound to be put to him.”
The panel disputed the accuracy of the limited testimony the former president did give.
Zondo described Zuma’s denial that he had instructed then-Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane to fire the head of the government communication service, who had clashed with the Guptas, as “a fabrication.”
He said it was aimed at ensuring he avoid accountability for his decision. Zuma also falsely implicated Chabane, because he had died and was unable to refute evidence, the judge said.
Ramaphosa has said the government will only act on Zondo’s report once it has been finalized and presented to parliament, but there’s nothing to stop law-enforcement agencies pursuing those implicated in the interim.
“We have a collective responsibility to ensure that the findings and recommendations of the commission not only mark a decisive break with the corrupt practices of the past, but that they provide the foundation for greater transparency, accountability and ethical conduct within all state institutions and across society,” Ramaphosa told reporters on Tuesday.
Still, as Zondo noted, those law enforcement agencies were gutted under Zuma’s rule, and no major convictions of politically connected individuals have been secured during Ramaphosa’s tenure.