South African President Cyril Ramaphosa appeared before a commission of inquiry in Johannesburg to testify as a witness to high-level corruption investigations during the nine-year tenure of former President Jacob Zuma. The investigation contains allegations that Zuma allowed the businessmen’s brothers – Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta – to influence his policies and win lucrative government contracts, sparking nationwide protests in 2017 against what many referred to as the “state arrest”.
Ramaphosa said senior cadres of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party disagreed on whether a small group of people was unduly influencing the state. “Differences in the existence of government detention, its scope and form, and the measures that should be taken against it, contributed to divisions within the national executive committee and other ANC structures,” Ramaphosa told the investigation.
Ramaphosa was also interviewed through the ANC’s Cadre Operations Committee. The ANC’s body is to promote key government officials. The commission identified a number of key government posts as the cause of persistent and undiminished corruption errors in the government.
In 2017, following the revelations of the corruption scandal, South Africa was gripped by protests against the state’s capture
Ramaphosa admitted that the committee allowed incompetent party members to be sent to a number of key positions, but defended it as necessary to fulfill the party’s mandates.
Admit ANC errors
Ramaphosa answered questions as chairman of the ANC party. He said the ruling party “could and should have done more” to prevent corruption under his predecessor Zuma.
“The ANC admits that it made mistakes … it had shortcomings in meeting the expectations of the people of South Africa for accountability enforcement,” Ramaphosa said.
His appearance marked the first time a seated president presented evidence of alleged wrongdoing by members of his own party.
He told the investigation that the ANC had waited too long to acknowledge the rampant corruption at the time, but would not try to “make excuses or defend the untenable”. The president did not mention his former boss Zuma by name.
Many South Africans praised Ramaphosa for appearing before the committee and admitting the ANC’s mistakes. “For democracy, it was important that the president sit there and answer questions about a process that is quasi judicial, as this underlines the predominance of the rule of law and constitutionalism over political power,” political analyst Onga Mtimka told DW.
However, political expert Susan Booysen said Ramaphosa resorted to his party’s failure in many ways in order not to detail how the corrupt activities took place. “We saw how he literally tripled in a minefield where he may incriminate himself, possibly a colleague in the ANC or the ANC as such,” Booysen told DW.
Ramaphosa was Zuma’s deputy when the alleged “state capture” by the gupats took place
How the “conquest of the state” developed
A 2016 report by the South African Ombudsman for Transplants alleged that the former CEO of electricity company Eskom Holdings helped the Gupta brothers sign a purchase agreement for Optimum Coal Holdings from Glencore plc and gave them cheap coal deals.
This bombshell was followed by more than 100,000 emails exposing interactions between the Gupta family and the Zumas through employees, describing a complex network of government contracts, suspected bribes, setbacks and money laundering.
The leaked emails indicated that a Gupta employee allegedly lost 5.3 billion rand ($ 400 million, $ 331 million) in setbacks from a contract to supply locomotives to state-owned rail operator Transnet SOC Ltd. had secured.
The Guptas were also accused of influencing the recruitment and dismissal of ministers. Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene had opposed Zuma’s plans for the government to build expensive nuclear power plants and was removed in 2015.
Who are the Guptas?
The three brothers Atul, Ajay, and Rajesh Gupta are South African businesspeople who have had close ties with President Jacob Zuma and his family. They came from India in the 1990s and started a small computer business before taking over large stakes in uranium, gold and coal mines. They also built a luxury game lodge, engineering office, newspaper, and 24-hour television news station.
All three Gupta brothers are said to be billionaires in the country’s peripheral currency. Atul Gupta was listed with 10.7 billion rand in December 2016 by the research company Who Owns Whom, the richest black person in South Africa. Atul came to South Africa from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 1993 and sold shoes and computers from the trunk of his car. Rajesh and Ajay followed their brother, and in 1997 the family, already doing business in India, started Sahara Computers.
Zuma’s son Duduzane was a board member of the Sahara Computers family owned by the Gupta
The Gupta ties in with the Zumas
In 2007, Zuma became chairman of the ANC as new laws made it imperative for large corporations to have black directors – especially when bidding on government contracts. President Zuma’s son, Duduzane, began working for Guptas’ Sahara Computers as a 22-year-old trainee and was quickly appointed to the boards of several Gupta companies.
One of Zuma’s daughters was a director at Sahara Computers and one of his wives worked at Guptas’ JIC Mining Services.
Duduzane has also reportedly had direct or indirect interests in several Gupta-controlled companies, including Infinity Media, the holding company of television network ANN7, and the mining company Tegeta Exploration & Resources.
The # GuptaLeaks emails have not been independently verified. Nonetheless, the corruption allegations have resulted in the popular use of the term “state imprisonment” to describe Guptas’ undue influence of private business interests on state institutions.
The Commission of Inquiry will continue to interview other top ANC executives. Ramaphosa is expected to return to the commission in late May to answer allegations of corruption by government officials he had as vice president under Zuma.
In the meantime, Jacob Zuma has refused to return to the commission and answer any further questions. He would rather go to jail than undergo a trial designed to criminalize him. So far, more than thirty witnesses have implicated him on the commission.
Thuso Khumalo in Johannesburg contributed to this report.