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South Africa's President Jacob Zuma speaks during a Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Sandton, Johannesburg, Dec. 4, 2015. (© Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters)
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma speaks during a Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Sandton, Johannesburg, Dec. 4, 2015. (© Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters)

‘State capture’ fears trigger turmoil for South African President Jacob Zuma Add to ...

An increasingly bitter split in the ranks of South Africa’s ruling party, triggered by mounting allegations of high-level corruption, has left Jacob Zuma reeling from the worst crisis of his presidency.

A rebellion erupted in the African National Congress on Wednesday when a cabinet minister revealed that he had been offered a promotion to a top cabinet post by the Guptas, a powerful family with a sprawling financial empire and a business partnership with Mr. Zuma’s son.

The revelation, in an extraordinary public statement by junior finance minister Mcebisi Jonas, has fuelled the escalating fears of what South Africans are calling “state capture” – the profitable manipulation of government by private business interests.

Just hours before the Jonas revelation, there was news of another corruption scandal involving the government. The global soccer body, FIFA, confirmed allegations that South Africa had illegally paid a bribe of $10-million (U.S.) for the right to host the 2010 World Cup.

Though the bribe was paid before Mr. Zuma became President in 2009, his government has loudly denied the accusation and insisted that the payment was merely a form of support for the “African diaspora” in the Caribbean. But FIFA admitted on Wednesday that the “diaspora” claim was merely a disguise for a bribery scheme to buy the votes of its executive members.

Meanwhile, Mr. Zuma is coming under attack for allowing a controversial police unit to launch an aggressive investigation of his Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, who has resisted the influence of the Guptas in the government’s business dealings. Senior ANC officials have criticized the police for harassing the minister.

And in another scandal, a former member of Parliament accused the Guptas of offering her a cabinet post in exchange for control of a potentially lucrative airline route between South Africa and India.

As the scandals and factional splits continue, Mr. Zuma faces a crucial meeting of the ANC executive this weekend, with the Gupta issue high on the agenda.

In 2013, the Guptas ignited a national uproar by using a South African military base as the landing site for a large airplane filled with 270 Indian guests for a private family wedding. By landing at an air base, the wedding entourage was able to bypass the normal immigration controls.

More recently, a company co-owned by Mr. Zuma’s son, Duduzane, obtained a large stake in a Gupta-founded company that bought a South African coal mine and won a valuable contract with the state electricity supplier. South Africa’s Mining Minister had flown to Switzerland to support the acquisition of the coal mine, reports said.

The Gupta business empire also includes a uranium company, which is said to be a potential beneficiary of a major expansion of South Africa’s nuclear energy sector – an expensive project that Mr. Zuma has vocally supported, but has been questioned by the Finance Ministry.

And last December, finance minister Nhlanhla Nene was abruptly fired and replaced by an obscure politician who was widely reported to have links to the Gupta family. Four days later, after a furor of protests, the new minister was himself fired.

In this atmosphere of growing outrage at the influence of the Guptas, the revelations by Mr. Jonas on Wednesday provoked another storm of anger.

“Members of the Gupta family offered me the position of Minister of Finance to replace then-minister Nene,” he said in a statement. “I rejected this out of hand. The basis of my rejection of their offer is that it makes a mockery of our hard-earned democracy [and] the trust of our people, and no one apart from the President of the Republic appoints ministers. I have hesitated to speak out publicly on this matter until now, but I feel it is no longer possible to remain quiet.”

The phenomenon of “state capture” could undermine the “moral authority” of the government, Mr. Jonas added in an apparent criticism of the Gupta family’s influence.

The Guptas responded on Wednesday night by attacking Mr. Jonas and complaining of “political point-scoring by rival factions within the ANC.”

But several senior ANC leaders came out in support of Mr. Jonas. The ANC’s secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, warned that “oligarchs” could be turning the government into a “Mafia state.”

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