South Africa's ANC Split Over 'State Capture' Probe

President Cyril Ramaphosa.

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa says the ruling ANC should have done more to fight graft during Zuma's presidency. Ramaphosa was testifying in a probe on how the Gupta family was able to 'capture the state.'

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa appeared before a commission of inquiry in Johannesburg to testify as a witness in the high-level corruption investigations during the nine-year tenure of former President Jacob Zuma. The probe includes accusations that Zuma allowed businessmen brothers -- Atul, Ajay, and Rajesh Gupta -- to influence his policies and win lucrative government contracts, which sparked nationwide protests in 2017 against what many described as "state capture."

Ramaphosa said the top cadres of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party disagreed with whether a small group of individuals had undue influence over the state. "Differences on whether indeed state capture existed, its extent and form and what should be done about it contributed to divisions within the national executive committee and other ANC structures," Ramaphosa told the inquiry.

Ramaphosa was also quizzed about the ANC's cadre deployment committee. The ANC body is tasked with placing members into key government positions. The commission identified some key government posts as the source of continued and unabated corruption malpractices in the government.

Ramaphosa admitted that the committee allowed the deployment of incompetent party members into some important positions but defended it as necessary to fulfill the party's mandates.

Admitting ANC mistakes

Ramaphosa was answering questions as head of the ANC party. He said the governing party "could and should" have done more to prevent corruption under his predecessor Zuma..

"The ANC does admit that it made mistakes... It had shortcomings in living up to the expectations of the people of South Africa in relation to enforcing accountability," Ramaphosa said.

His appearance marked a first of a sitting president giving evidence on alleged wrongdoing by members of his own party.

He also told the inquiry the ANC waited too long to recognize rampant corruption during that period but that he would not try to "make excuses or to defend the indefensible." The president did not mention his former boss Zuma by name.

Many South Africans praised Ramaphosa for appearing before the committee and admitting the ANC's mistakes. "It was important for democracy to have the president sit there and answer questions to a process that's quasi-judicial because what that does is it underscores the predominance of the rule of law and constitutionalism over political power," political analyst Onga Mtimka told DW.

However, political pundit Susan Booysen says Ramaphosa resorted to conceding his party's failure in many aspects to avoid giving much detail on how the corrupt activities took place. "We saw him tripling around literally a minefield of possibly implicating himself, possibly implicating any colleague in the ANC, or incriminating the ANC as such," Booysen told DW.

How the 'state capture' unfolded

In 2016, a report by South Africa's graft ombudsman alleged that the former CEO of electricity utility Eskom Holdings helped the Gupta brothers secure a deal to buy Optimum Coal Holdings from Glencore plc and awarded them favorable coal contracts.

This bombshell report was followed by leaks of more than 100,000 emails that revealed interactions between the Gupta family and the Zumas via associates, detailing a complex network of government contracts, alleged bribes, kickbacks, and money laundering.

The leaked emails suggested that a Gupta associate allegedly secured 5.3 billion rands ($400 million, $331 million) in kickbacks from a contract to supply locomotives to the state rail operator Transnet SOC Ltd.

The Guptas have also been accused of influencing the hiring and firing of ministers. Finance minister Nhlanhla Nene had resisted Zuma's plans for the government to build expensive nuclear plants and was removed in 2015.

Who are the Guptas?

The three brothers Atul, Ajay, and Rajesh Gupta are businessmen operating in South Africa that had close links to President Jacob Zuma and his family. They arrived from India in the 1990s and set up a small computer business before taking large stakes in uranium, gold, and coal mines. They also set up a luxury game lodge, an engineering company, a newspaper, and a 24-hour TV news station.

All three Gupta brothers are reported to be billionaires in the country's rand currency. Atul Gupta was listed by the research company, Who Owns Whom, the richest person of color in South Africa in December 2016 with 10.7 billion rands. Atul arrived in South Africa from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 1993, selling shoes and computers from the trunk of his car. Rajesh and Ajay followed their brother, and in 1997 the family, which already had business interests in India, set up Sahara Computers.

The Gupta ties to the Zumas

In 2007, Zuma became leader of the ANC as new laws made it essential for big companies to have black directors -- especially if they were bidding for government contracts. President Zuma's son, Duduzane, began working as a 22-year-old trainee at the Guptas' Sahara Computers, and he was quickly appointed to the boards of several Gupta companies.

One of Zuma's daughters was a director at Sahara Computers, and one of his wives worked at the Guptas' JIC Mining Services.

Duduzane also reportedly had direct or indirect holdings in several Gupta-controlled entities, including Infinity Media, the holding company for the TV channel ANN7, and mining company Tegeta Exploration & Resources.

The #GuptaLeaks emails have not been independently verified. Still, the corruption allegations have led to the popular use of the term "state capture" to describe the Guptas' undue influence of private business interests over government institutions.

The commission of inquiry will continue to interview other top ANC executives. Ramaphosa is expected to return to the commission at the end of May to answer corruption charges committed by government officials while he was serving as deputy president under Zuma.

Meanwhile, Jacob Zuma has refused to return to the commission and answer further questions, saying he would rather go to prison than subject himself to a process designed to criminalize him. So far, more than thirty witnesses have implicated him at the commission.

Thuso Khumalo in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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