JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African President Cyril Ramaphosa suffered two major setbacks on Friday, when he was accused of misleading parliament and his predecessor Jacob Zuma won significant concessions from a corruption inquiry.
Ramaphosa has staked his reputation on cleaning up South African politics since he replaced Zuma as head of state in February 2018 and then won a first full five-year term in May.
But he has been constrained by factional battles in the governing African National Congress (ANC), where a section of the party remains loyal to Zuma and has launched a fightback against reforms which threaten their influence.
Zuma has ducked and dived this week at the inquiry, which is testing allegations that he allowed cronies to plunder state resources and influence senior appointments during his nine years in power. He has denied those allegations.
He complained that he was being questioned unfairly, but on Friday he secured a deal whereby he will provide only written statements for now, before returning later to give more public testimony.
Political analysts say if the inquiry, which Zuma set up in his final weeks in office under pressure from rivals including Ramaphosa, fails to link the former president to serious wrongdoing it could dent Ramaphosa’s credibility.
“By being aggressively uncooperative and engaging in legal technicalities, Zuma has undermined the integrity of the inquiry. It is awfully embarrassing for Ramaphosa,” said Ralph Mathekga, an author of books on Zuma and Ramaphosa.
Zuma is a shrewd operator who survived several no-confidence votes before being ousted as president.
As head of intelligence for the outlawed ANC under apartheid he was privy to sensitive information which he has threatened to use against former comrades in the liberation struggle.
After the inquiry adjourned on Friday, he made a rousing speech to several hundred supporters in downtown Johannesburg, saying spies had infiltrated the ANC and that he was ready to expose them.
“I know a lot about spies. That was my job in the ANC. I’ve never played around with that information, but if people want me to uproot them I will,” Zuma said, before leading the crowd in renditions of struggle songs.
Ramaphosa’s second headache came from an investigation report by an advocate with powers enshrined in the constitution to probe civil servants’ conduct.
Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane said Ramaphosa had “deliberately misled” parliament about a 500,000 rand ($35,955) donation he received for his campaign to become leader of the ANC in 2017.
Mkhwebane said Ramaphosa had violated an executive ethics code and referred the matter to the speaker of parliament. She also instructed the chief prosecutor to investigate whether Ramaphosa’s campaign had laundered money in handling donations.
Ramaphosa’s office said it was unfortunate that Mkhwebane seemed to have not taken into account his response to her preliminary findings, which he described as “deficient both factually and in law”.
His supporters say Mkhwebane isn’t impartial in her investigations and accuse her of acting as a proxy for Zuma’s faction. She has denied that.
Although analysts aren’t predicting Ramaphosa will be removed from office soon, the report provides ammunition to his enemies with which to attack him.
“This report will add to the Zuma faction’s plans to neutralize and remove Ramaphosa, as they are threatened by his anti-corruption campaign,” Darias Jonker, Africa director at Eurasia Group. “The immediate political damage is significant.”
From Zuma’s first day at the corruption inquiry on Monday, his lawyers have tried to prevent him from facing rigorous questioning.
“This animal called corruption is amorphous, we don’t know who is actually corrupt,” Zuma’s lawyer Muzi Sikhakhane told the senior judge overseeing the inquiry.
Zuma threatened on Friday to pull out of the inquiry before his demand for a more lenient form of questioning was granted.
State prosecutors are following the inquiry and could open cases if strong evidence of wrongdoing emerges.
On Monday Zuma denied that he had done anything unlawful with his friends the Guptas, three Indian-born businessmen who won lucrative state contracts during his time in power, repeating: “I know nothing.”
The Guptas, who were at the center of influence-peddling allegations during Zuma’s tenure, have denied they used their relationship with Zuma to profit financially.
Additional reporting by Mfuneko Toyana; Editing by Gareth Jones