After weeks of testimony about bribery and corruption, a South African inquiry is intensifying its pressure on former president Jacob Zuma and the wealthy businessmen who allegedly exploited his influence.
The inquiry, headed by deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo of the country’s highest court, ruled on Thursday that Mr. Zuma should be asked to respond to the growing evidence against him, despite his claim that he hasn’t been implicated in the testimony.
Justice Zondo also rejected a bold attempt by the Gupta brothers – the wealthy businessmen at the heart of South Africa’s biggest postapartheid corruption scandal – to win the right to cross-examine the inquiry’s witnesses from the safety of their new home in Dubai, where they fled after Mr. Zuma’s resignation in February.
The Guptas, who say they won’t return to South Africa because the police are incompetent and could arrest them, are “running away” from the justice system and don’t deserve “special treatment” from the inquiry, Justice Zondo said in his ruling.
Two of the Gupta brothers, Ajay and Rajesh, had asked for the right to have their lawyers cross-examine the witnesses at the inquiry who have accused them of offering bribes to politicians and using Mr. Zuma’s influence to obtain government funds. They also wanted to give their own testimony from Dubai, either by video link or by compelling the inquiry to travel to Dubai.
Justice Zondo said he cannot allow the Guptas to have a special status that other witnesses don’t have. If they testify from abroad, they would be exempt from South African laws that govern testimony at such inquiries, he noted.
Other observers have been stronger in their criticism of the controversial business family. “The audacity of the Guptas to ask for preferential treatment, despite being so deeply implicated in the state capture process, shows their arrogance,” said Neeshan Balton, executive director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, an organization set up to continue the work of Mr. Kathrada, an anti-apartheid hero who was imprisoned with late South African president Nelson Mandela.
“We cannot allow the arrogance of members of the Gupta family to make a mockery of the procedure put in place to deal with the mess that they are in part accused of causing,” Mr. Balton said in a statement. “The Guptas want to benefit from the legal processes set up through this commission, but at the same time want to flee the law.”
The Zondo inquiry is investigating what it calls “state capture” – the widely used term for the Guptas and their huge influence over the South African government during the presidency of Mr. Zuma, whose son is a business partner of the Guptas.
Mr. Zuma, who appointed the inquiry under intense political pressure shortly before resigning, is reported to be plotting a return to power, and recently held a covert meeting with senior leaders of the ruling African National Congress.
In a speech on Wednesday, the former president ridiculed the state capture term, calling it a “politically decorated expression.” Nobody was captured and there were merely “some people who were doing things with other people,” Mr. Zuma said.
Mr. Zuma’s lawyers have told the inquiry that he doesn’t need to comment on the inquiry because he is not implicated in the formal testimony so far. But in his ruling, Justice Zondo asked the former president to prepare a response to testimony that has named him and identified his role.
Since its hearings began on Aug. 20, the inquiry has heard evidence from a former deputy finance minister and a former MP who said they were offered financial or political inducements to help the Guptas. It has also heard from former government officials who testified that they were pressured into changing their policies to funnel money to the Guptas.
One former senior official, Themba Maseko, said Mr. Zuma told him to help the Guptas by placing government advertising in a Gupta-owned newspaper.
Former MP Vytjie Mento said Mr. Zuma was present in the Gupta residence when the Guptas offered her a cabinet post in exchange for her help in favouring a Gupta-linked airline.
Former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas testified that he was summoned to a meeting at the Gupta residence with Mr. Zuma’s son, Duduzane. At the meeting, he said, the Guptas offered him 600-million rand (about $58-million at the time) if he agreed to become the finance minister and to assist them in their businesses.
Meanwhile, a separate investigation by South Africa’s Parliament is uncovering new evidence about how the Guptas made exaggerated claims of huge charitable donations to local schools in order to bypass the standard procedures and gain South African citizenship faster than normal.
School officials told the parliamentary committee that there was little evidence of the “feeding schemes” and other donations that the India-born brothers claimed to have given. Yet in a sign of their political influence, a cabinet minister decided to grant early citizenship to the Guptas anyway.
The committee has found evidence that government officials were holding meetings with Gupta associates to give them privileged access to visas and work permits for their foreign employees.