South African president takes high-stakes gamble on corruption inquiry

Cyril Ramaphosa hopes his appearance will help make break from ANC’s corrupt image

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. Photograph: White House/Bloomberg

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. Photograph: White House/Bloomberg

 

The appearance of South Africa’s president at an inquiry this week to testify about the ruling African National Congress party’s role in public sector corruption could be a key political moment for the movement and its leader.

The three-year-old Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector has already heard from numerous witnesses about the widespread graft and tender fraud that allegedly occurred under former president Jacob Zuma’s watch.

Mr Zuma and other senior ANC officials are accused of being central players in public sector corruption that cost taxpayers the equivalent of billions of euro between 2009 to 2018, when Mr Zuma was forced from office by the ruling party.

Among other things, the former president has been accused of allowing members of the controversial Gupta business family and other private sector companies to influence senior government appointments and lucrative state contracts in return for kickbacks.

Mr Zuma (78) has denied the allegations and steadfastly refused to co-operate with the inquiry, claiming it is biased against him. He has also recently ignored a constitutional court order to appear in the witness box, even though his stance could land him in jail.

His approach to the inquiry has left a gaping hole in the evidence being gathered by its presiding judge, Raymond Zondo, who must wrap up his investigation over the next couple of months and produce a final report.

But the hope is that current president Cyril Ramaphosa’s testimony will help to address this shortfall in evidence, as well as provide insights into what the ANC did or did not do in response to the alleged corruption within its ranks.

Tough questioning

Mr Ramaphosa is scheduled to appear at the inquiry on Wednesday and Thursday in his capacity as ANC leader, where he is expected to face a tough line of questioning about the alleged corruption and the ANC’s response to it, given he was its deputy president at the time.

Political analysts said Mr Ramaphosa’s decision to appear at the inquiry was risky for both him and the ANC, but his testimony could also help to redeem the movement in the eyes of the public and boost his own political fortunes.

Institute of Security Studies political analyst Gareth Newham described Mr Ramaphosa’s appearance at the inquiry as a “highly significant” moment that was “fraught with danger” for South Africa’s president.

“The allegation is that the ANC has largely been ‘captured’ by criminal elements, and Mr Ramaphosa was its deputy president during much of Mr Zuma’s tenure,” said Mr Newham. “Did he know what was going on? What did he and the ANC leadership do to stop it? There are difficult questions for him to answer.”

However, he added, Mr Ramaphosa’s decision to give evidence also showed that the ANC under his leadership fully supported the inquiry and its work.

“During recent election campaigns, Ramaphosa promised voters he would make tackling corruption one of his main priorities. So his appearance at the inquiry should build trust in his administration if he can show the ANC is successfully renewing itself under his leadership,” Mr Newham said.

Significant decision

Mcebisi Ndletyana, associate professor at the University of Johannesburg’s department of politics and international relations, also said Mr Ramaphosa’s willingness to testify was significant.

“It provides leadership by example,” he said. “It demonstrates that those ANC members who refuse to give evidence at the inquiry are in conflict with the party’s position on it. But it could turn out badly for Ramaphosa and the ANC if he is seen to be evasive and tries to avoid certain lines of questioning.”

Mr Ndletyana said it was unlikely that Mr Ramaphosa would try to directly implicate Mr Zuma in wrongdoing, because with local elections scheduled to take place in October, he would not do anything to overtly divide the movement.

“I suspect he will try to avoid giving the impression he is out to get Zuma,” he said. “Although Ramaphosa’s supporters in the ANC appear to have the upper hand over the faction that backs Zuma, he will try to maintain unity with elections so close.”

In early May, Mr Ramaphosa will return to the inquiry to give further evidence in his capacity as South Africa’s president.

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