South African President Cyril Ramaphosa appeared before a commission of inquiry in Johannesburg to testify as a witness in the high-level corruption investigations into the nine-year tenure of former President Jacob Zuma. The probe includes accusations that Zuma allowed the businessmen brothers Atul, Ajay, and Rajesh Gupta to influence his policies and win lucrative government contracts, which sparked nationwide protests in 2017 against what many described as "state capture."
Ramaphosa said the top cadres of the ruling African National Congress party disagreed with whether a small group of individuals had undue influence over the government. "Differences on whether indeed state capture existed, its extent and form, and what should be done about it contributed to divisions within the national executive committee and other ANC structures," Ramaphosa told the inquiry.
The president was also quizzed about the ANC's cadre deployment committee. The ANC body is tasked with placing members into key government positions. The commission identified some key government posts as the source of continued and unabated corruption malpractices in the government.
Ramaphosa admitted that the committee had allowed the deployment of incompetent party members into some important positions but defended it as necessary to fulfill the party's mandates.
Admitting ANC mistakes
The president was answering questions as head of the ANC party. He said the governing party "could and should" have done more to prevent corruption under his predecessor Zuma..
"The ANC does admit that it made mistakes," Ramaphosa said. "It had shortcomings in living up to the expectations of the people of South Africa in relation to enforcing accountability," he added.
Ramaphosa's appearance marked a first time that a sitting president had given evidence against members of his own party.
The president told the inquiry that the ANC had waited too long to recognize rampant corruption during that period but that he would not try to "make excuses or to defend the indefensible." Ramaphosa 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. "It was important for democracy to have the president sit there and answer questions to a process that's quasi-judicial because what that does is it underscores the predominance of the rule of law and constitutionalism over political power," political analyst Onga Mtimka told DW.
The political pundit Susan Booysen said Ramaphosa had resorted to conceding his party's failure in many aspects to avoid giving much detail on how the corruption took place. "We saw him tripling around literally a minefield of possibly implicating himself, possibly implicating any colleague in the ANC, or incriminating the ANC as such," Booysen told DW.
How 'state capture' unfolded
In 2016, a report by South Africa's graft ombudsman found that the former CEO of the electricity utility Eskom Holdings had helped the Gupta brothers secure a deal to buy Optimum Coal Holdings from Glencore plc and awarded them favorable coal contracts.
This bombshell report was followed by leaks of more than 100,000 emails that revealed interactions between the Gupta family and the Zumas via associates, detailing a complex network of government contracts, suspected bribes, kickbacks and money laundering.
The leaked emails suggested that a Gupta associate had secured 5.3 billion rands ($400 million) in kickbacks from a contract to supply locomotives to the state rail operator, Transnet SOC Ltd.
The Guptas have also been accused of influencing the hiring and firing of ministers. Finance minister Nhlanhla Nene had resisted Zuma's plans for the government to build expensive nuclear plants and was removed in 2015.
Who are the Guptas?
Atul, Ajay, and Rajesh Gupta are businessmen operating in South Africa who had close links to Zuma and his family. They arrived from India in the 1990s and set up a small computer business before taking large stakes in uranium, gold, and coal mines. They also set up a luxury game lodge, an engineering company, a newspaper, and a 24-hour TV news station.
All three brothers are reported to be billionaires in the country's rand currency. Atul Gupta was listed by the research company, Who Owns Whom, the richest person of color in South Africa in December 2016 with 10.7 billion rands. Atul arrived in South Africa from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 1993, selling shoes and computers from the trunk of his car. Rajesh and Ajay followed their brother, and in 1997 the family, which already had business interests in India, set up Sahara Computers.
Guptas and Zumas
In 2007, Zuma became leader of the ANC as new laws made it essential for big companies to have Black directors — especially if they were bidding for government contracts. Zuma's son Duduzane began working as a 22-year-old trainee at the Guptas' Sahara Computers, and he 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 the Guptas' JIC Mining Services.
Duduzane also reportedly had direct or indirect holdings in several Gupta-controlled entities, including Infinity Media, the holding company for the TV channel ANN7 and the mining company Tegeta Exploration & Resources.
The #GuptaLeaks emails have not been independently verified. Still, the corruption allegations have led to the popular use of the term "state capture" to describe the Guptas' undue influence of private business interests over government institutions.
The commission of inquiry will continue to interview other top ANC executives. Ramaphosa is expected to return to the commission at the end of May to answer corruption charges committed by government officials while he was serving as deputy president under Zuma.
Zuma has refused to return to the commission and answer further questions, saying he would rather go to prison than subject himself to a process designed to criminalize him. So far, more than 30 witnesses have implicated him at the commission.
Thuso Khumalo in Johannesburg contributed to this report.