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Former South African president Jacob Zuma sits in court during his corruption trial in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, on Oct. 26, 2021.POOL/Reuters

Corruption became so rampant in South Africa under Jacob Zuma’s presidency that entire state institutions were effectively dismantled for the benefit of corrupt businessmen and politicians, a public inquiry has found.

The amount of corruption has reached such extremes that it has become an existential threat to South African democracy, the inquiry warned, citing “alarming” evidence that the ruling party, the African National Congress, has been financed by the proceeds of crime, including illicit contracts that were awarded to ANC donors.

The inquiry, headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, released an 874-page report on Tuesday after nearly four years of public hearings and investigations. It is the first of three huge volumes that it plans to release by the end of next month – a culmination of a “gruelling four years” of work, Justice Zondo said on Tuesday.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who replaced Mr. Zuma in 2018, said the inquiry’s reports will be a “defining moment” for the fight against corruption. “If we work together, we will be able to rid our country of the gross actions of corruption we have seen in the past,” he said after Justice Zondo handed the thick report to him.

Mr. Ramaphosa promised to implement the inquiry’s recommendations and intensify state efforts against graft. But many South Africans will be skeptical, recalling how Mr. Ramaphosa’s own government has been riddled with corruption, including recent scandals involving diverted funds from COVID-19 contracts.

The Zondo inquiry was assigned to investigate “state capture” – the private manipulation of government entities for illicit profit – during Mr. Zuma’s nine-year presidency. It uncovered dozens of examples, painting a portrait of a president who conspired with corrupt businessmen to weaken the state for their private benefit.

In one of the most shocking examples, the inquiry found that Mr. Zuma and his associates had deliberately dismantled the powers of the national tax agency, the South African Revenue Service, or SARS.

The tax agency became a target because it was “a hurdle to those involved in organized crime,” the report said. “The SARS evidence is a clear example of how the private sector colluded with the executive, including President Zuma, to capture an institution that was highly regarded internationally and render it ineffective.”

The inquiry found that Mr. Zuma had conspired with SARS commissioner Tom Moyane and the U.S.-based consulting firm Bain and Co. to find ways to restructure and weaken the tax agency as early as 2013, even before Mr. Zuma had formally appointed Mr. Moyane to the post.

Under Mr. Moyane’s rule, senior managers were purged from the agency, its investigative capacity was disabled, and a “pervasive culture of fear and bullying” was imposed, the report said.

“He dismantled the elements of governance one by one,” it said. “The only feasible conclusion is that the organization was deliberately captured and President Zuma and Mr. Moyane played critical roles in the capture of SARS and dismantling it.”

The inquiry called for a police investigation and possible criminal charges for wrongdoing at the tax agency, including in the awarding of the contract to Bain.

The inquiry documented a similar pattern of high-level purges and corrupt influence at the state agency in charge of government advertising, where Mr. Zuma took steps to ensure a massive flow of advertising revenue to a newspaper owned by a business family, the Gupta brothers, who had enormous influence over him.

Mr. Zuma ordered the removal of the agency’s respected chief executive officer, Themba Maseko, because he knew that Mr. Maseko would not approve the Gupta newspaper advertising deals, the inquiry found. “It shows how far he was prepared to go in order to advance the agenda of the Guptas,” it said.

“It shows the extent of the Guptas’ influence in the public sector in South Africa as well as the Guptas’ strategy to replace officials that were not compliant with their looting scheme. ... President Zuma was prepared to throw his own comrade in the ANC, Mr. Maseko, a well-performing civil servant, into the street just because he had refused to be party to a corrupt arrangement.”

In a similar episode in 2015, the Guptas nearly succeeded in capturing South Africa’s most powerful agency, the National Treasury, by persuading Mr. Zuma to appoint a compliant minister to head the treasury, the inquiry found. The appointment was reversed after four days of outraged reaction. “If they had succeeded in December, 2015, we do not know where this country would be,” the inquiry said.

In another example, Mr. Zuma installed one of his closest associates, Dudu Myeni, as the chair of the state airline, South African Airways, where she “enabled acts of fraud and corruption” to “engulf” the airline, the inquiry found.

It found overwhelming evidence that Ms. Myeni had unlawfully benefited from the resources and protection of South Africa’s state security agency. “This reveals how powerful Ms. Myeni was and how close she was to President Zuma.”

The inquiry sought to question Mr. Zuma about this and many other issues, but he walked out of the inquiry. “Mr. Zuma fled the commission completely without any valid reason,” it said. “He did not want to account to the nation. He knew he was not going to have answers to many of the questions that were bound to be put to him.”

South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, ordered the 79-year-old former president to testify at the inquiry. When he refused, he was arrested and jailed for contempt of court, but was quickly released on medical parole – a decision that has triggered further court battles.

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