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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa appears on behalf of the ruling African National Congress party at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, in Johannesburg, South Africa, on April 28, 2021.Themba Hadebe/The Associated Press

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Wednesday the governing party “could and should” have done more to prevent corruption under his predecessor Jacob Zuma, in highly anticipated testimony to a graft inquiry.

Ramaphosa, Zuma’s former deputy, was appearing in his capacity as current leader of the African National Congress (ANC), a rare case of a sitting president giving evidence on recent alleged wrongdoing by members of his own party.

The “state capture” inquiry is probing allegations of graft during Zuma’s nine years in power, including that Zuma allowed businessmen close to him – brothers Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta – to influence policy and win lucrative government contracts.

Zuma and the Guptas have repeatedly denied the allegations against them.

Ramaphosa told the inquiry it took time for the ANC to recognize high-level corruption during the period, but that he would not try to “make excuses or to defend the indefensible”. He did not mention Zuma by name.

“We all acknowledge that the organization could and should have done more to prevent the abuse of power and the misappropriation of resources that defined the era of state capture,” he said.

Ramaphosa added that “corrosive corruption” had hurt the ANC’s support among voters, six months before local government elections at which the party will look to improve on its worst election results since the end of apartheid.

Opposition parties held a gathering outside the building where the inquiry was being held and participants said Ramaphosa should personally shoulder some of the blame.

“Ramaphosa was part and parcel of the decisions. He was the deputy president of the country when money disappeared,” said William Madisha, a lawmaker with small party COPE. “The ANC must pay back what belongs to the people.”

KEY TEST AHEAD

Ramaphosa, the ANC’s deputy leader from 2012 to 2017 and deputy president from 2014 until 2018, has made the fight against graft one of his calling cards.

After he won a closely fought battle for the ANC leadership against Zuma’s ex-wife in December 2017, his allies in the party engineered Zuma’s ouster, allowing him to take over as head of state in February 2018, before Zuma’s second five-year term was due to end.

He trod cautiously at the start of his presidency as a faction in the ANC remained loyal to Zuma, but has grown increasingly assertive.

At a March meeting of the party’s National Executive Committee, his supporters pushed through tighter disciplinary measures for members implicated in corruption and other serious crimes.

A key test of those stricter rules will be whether Secretary-General Ace Magashule, seen as a Zuma loyalist, vacates his post in the coming days because of corruption charges. Magashule denies the charges but at the end of March the party gave him and others charged with serious crimes a 30-day deadline to “step aside.”

Over several days of testimony at the inquiry, Ramaphosa is expected to be asked what he knew about allegedly corrupt practices while serving alongside Zuma and why he did not act to stop them.

The inquiry was set up during Zuma’s final weeks in office. Zuma appeared at it briefly in 2019 but defied a summons and court order to give more evidence earlier this year. The inquiry’s lawyers are seeking Zuma’s imprisonment as a result.

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