July 16, 2019 / 9:32 AM / 2 months ago

'I know nothing': South Africa's Zuma ducks and dives at corruption inquiry

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Former South African President Jacob Zuma ducked and dived on his second day of testimony at a corruption inquiry on Tuesday, saying he knew nothing about his business friends the Guptas allegedly offering a former lawmaker a ministerial position.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma appears before the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 16, 2019. Pool via REUTERS

The inquiry is spotlighting the allegations of graft that clouded Zuma’s nine-year presidency, but analysts say that if it fails to pin a case on him it could dent President Cyril Ramaphosa’s anti-corruption drive.

Ramaphosa’s efforts to clean up politics are already hampered by the lingering influence that Zuma and his allies exert over the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Allegations that Zuma allowed the three Gupta brothers to plunder state resources and influence senior government appointments are one of the main areas of focus for the inquiry, which began in August and is expected to last into next year.

The Guptas have denied the allegations against them, as has Zuma, who was ousted by the ANC in February 2018 and replaced by Ramaphosa.

State prosecutors have said they are following the inquiry and they could open cases if sufficient evidence of wrongdoing emerges. Under pressure from his party, Zuma agreed to set up the inquiry just before he left office.

Asked about an incident where one of the Indian-born Guptas allegedly offered former ANC lawmaker Vytjie Mentor the position of minister of public enterprises, Zuma said on Tuesday: “I know nothing about it”, repeating the same phrase several times and once letting out a chuckle.

Mentor told the inquiry that the offer of the ministerial post was conditional on her cancelling a lucrative South African Airways flying route to India.

She said she refused the offer, which she said was made in 2010 at a time when Zuma was at one of the Guptas’ residences.

“No there was nothing of that nature. I was never in some room,” Zuma said when asked whether he was in the Guptas’ home when the job offer was allegedly made to Mentor.

Zuma, 77, said he had never discussed ministerial appointments with the Guptas.

Several witnesses other than Mentor have told the inquiry that the Guptas were privy to information about senior government appointments.

Zuma also denied on Tuesday that he had issued an instruction to remove Themba Maseko, former head of the government communications service, from his position after Maseko refused to direct state advertising money to the Guptas’ media company in 2011.

Maseko told the inquiry that Zuma had telephoned him and told him to help the Guptas. Zuma said on Monday that he did not remember calling Maseko.

DEATH THREAT

Zuma told the inquiry in opening remarks on Tuesday that he had received a death threat after his testimony the previous day, when he denied allegations of graft and said his enemies had plotted decades ago to get rid of him.

Zuma said on Monday, his first day of testimony, that he could trace the plot to oust him back to foreign intelligence services and the apartheid government in the 1990s.

The country’s deputy chief justice, Raymond Zondo, who is overseeing the inquiry, said the alleged death threat from an unknown caller against Zuma and his children was unacceptable.

As a former president, Zuma is protected by high-level state security. Police spokesman Vishnu Naidoo did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether police had opened an investigation after Zuma’s comments.

On Tuesday, Zuma’s lawyers argued that the inquiry’s line of questioning was inappropriate because it amounted to cross-examination. This led to a brief delay before the presiding judge urged those questioning Zuma to bear this in mind.

Zuma’s lawyers said the testimony at the inquiry so far had not implicated the former president in corruption or fraud, so he should not be cross-examined but should merely answer questions for clarification purposes.

ZUMA FACTION

On Monday, Zuma denied that he had done anything unlawful with the Guptas, who left South Africa around the time that Zuma was ousted.

Zuma, expected to testify until Friday, was supported at the inquiry by his son as well as prominent allies including ex-finance minister Malusi Gigaba.

ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule, a close ally of Zuma, addressed reporters during a break in the proceedings on Tuesday and suggested the inquiry’s focus on the Gupta family was misguided.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma appears before the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 16, 2019. Pool via REUTERS

Magashule, who is in charge of the day-to-day running of the ANC, has made comments that have directly contradicted Ramaphosa and his faction in the ANC in recent months.

“I don’t know why South Africa is not actually investigating every company which has worked with government, and why we are actually targeting one particular company and family,” Magashule said. “Tell me which company has not met with government.”

Magashule declined to answer a question about whether he thought the inquiry was biased, as Zuma’s lawyers have said.

Reporting by Alexander Winning; Editing by Frances Kerry

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