A Public Probe Is Putting South Africa's Ruling ANC on Trial

A Public Probe Is Putting South Africa's Ruling ANC on Trial

Supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) sing and dance on June 8, 2018, outside the High Court in Durban during a rally in support of former South African president Jacob Zuma.

SourceGIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP /GETTY

Why you should care

A public probe into corruption under former President Jacob Zuma is opening South Africa’s wounds even wider. 

For South Africans, the public inquiry into the “state capture” of former President Jacob Zuma’s government has been both eye-opening and cathartic — daily evidence of the malign influence of the powerful Gupta business family. Ngoako Ramatlhodi, a former mining minister and a high-ranking member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) told the inquiry recently that the Guptas were “a python wrapped around” Zuma as the ex-president “auctioned off executive authority.”

“This relationship of yours with these guys is toxic, why don’t you end it?” Ramatlhodi said he and other ANC members had told Zuma. The Gupta brothers, he added, wanted to show they “had captured the republic.” Ramatlhodi’s testimony was typical of what’s playing out in South Africa, as the country heads toward its 2019 general elections that will determine the fate of the ANC, the only party that has ruled the nation since the end of apartheid.

Established in August a few months after the ANC removed Zuma from office in a bitter power struggle, the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture was meant to draw a line under a scandal that has shaken South Africa to its core. The hearings were about “finding out the truth, what really happened,” Cyril Ramaphosa, Zuma’s successor, said in November as he insisted that “more and more light is being shed” on the affair. The trade unionist turned tycoon came to office with a pledge to end years of corruption and institutional decay in South Africa, which he hopes will convince disillusioned voters to return to the ANC in the elections.

The ANC is under siege and on trial at the commission. This is proxy war.

Ralph Mathekga, political analyst

But the most striking result of the first few months of hearings has been to expose how deep the Guptas’ influence extended into the ANC and the government. This underlines the challenge facing Ramaphosa and the woes of his party.

“The ANC is under siege and on trial at the commission. This is proxy war,” says Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst.

Revelations such as Ramatlhodi’s have become nightly news in South Africa — that is, when TV viewers are not left in the dark by power blackouts caused by the crisis at state-owned utility Eskom, which is among the alleged victims of the looting of government assets.

Time and again the ANC has been embarrassed by testimony showing how its top ranks failed to act as the Guptas gained traction in the state. ANC leaders have also been criticized for seeming to put pressure on banks that had closed Gupta company accounts at the height of the scandal. Ramaphosa was Zuma’s deputy for four years, although there have been no allegations against him of wrongdoing involving the Guptas. Yet he is likely to face difficult questions at the inquiry before May’s elections.

Meanwhile, Zuma and the Guptas, who deny all the allegations against them, are staying away from proceedings. The Guptas left South Africa for Dubai as Zuma fell from power and their mining-to-media empire collapsed. Allies of the ex-president are trying to intimidate their enemies in the ANC from testifying, analysts say.

“The evidence emerging has really gripped the attention of the nation,” says Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, a legal nongovernmental organization. “Each day, it gets more and more explosive.”

At the same time, post-apartheid South Africa has a history of inquiries that resulted in little or no accountability. They included probes into police killings of striking mineworkers and past ANC corruption.

The weakening of police and prosecutorial institutions under Zuma, allegedly to provide cover for looting, has exacerbated this. Ramatlhodi said he told fellow ANC leaders at the height of the Gupta scandal: “The next president is going to inherit an empty office … we are going to inherit an empty state.”

An investigation was opened into the Guptas before Zuma left power. The operation supported the first criminal prosecution against the family, over allegations they laundered state funds abroad through a dairy project.

But the prosecution has since foundered. It was withdrawn this month, lawyers say temporarily so that the state can muster stronger evidence.

This prompted Ajay Gupta, the most prominent of the brothers, to speak out. “I am confident that this matter will never see the light of day again,” he said in a statement. The family has cited the “unbridled and reckless abuse” of the prosecutions against them as a reason not to return to South Africa to testify at the inquiry.

The failure heightens the pressure on Shamila Batohi, who was appointed this month as director of public prosecutions by Ramaphosa to replace a Zuma crony. Batohi, who will take up her post after a stint advising at the International Criminal Court, has hinted about setting up a specialist unit to focus on state-capture crimes.

Such a unit would need approval from Ramaphosa, although Naidoo says it would be difficult for him to say no. “We need to see prosecutions soon,” he says.

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By Joseph Coterill

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