ON THE day that Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, was due to meet his Zimbabwean counterpart in Harare, an anti-corruption ombudsman back home released a report that may make his continued rule every bit as precarious as that of the ailing Robert Mugabe. The report into “State Capture”, compiled by the former Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, details a disturbing web of influence exerted over parts of the South African state by a powerful family of Mr Zuma’s chums.
The report does not provide proof of criminal wrongdoing by Mr Zuma. But it presents more than enough evidence to suggest that his wealthy benefactors—the brothers Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta—were involved in the firing and appointment of government ministers and the award of large contracts by Eskom, the large state-owned electricity utility.
Mr Zuma’s dwindling band of supporters will, no doubt, argue that the report exonerates him of any wrongdoing. But that would be to misread the nature of Ms Madonsela’s findings; for this is but a first salvo in a legal barrage that may see Mr Zuma out of office before the end of 2017. All that Ms Madonsela had to do in this report was show that there was enough apparent evidence of wrongdoing to justify her binding order that the government establish a judicial commission of inquiry that, in turn, must now investigate alleged influence-peddling by the president more fully.
Take the details in her report of testimony by the deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, who said that he had been offered 600m rand ($44m) by Ajay Gupta. All he had to do in return was agree to be appointed finance minister and then to replace key executives in the National Treasury, which was a “stumbling block” to the Gupta family’s business ambitions. When Mr Jonas declined the offer Mr Gupta upped it, asking if he had a bag big enough to hold 600,000 rand in cash that he could take with him right away. A few months later the finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, was abruptly fired and replaced by an unknown backbencher who appears to have spent more time with his friends the Guptas than he did in his ministerial office.
The call for a judicial commission is worrying in that it would seem to suggest that Ms Madonsela had little faith in the independence of her successor, Busisiwe Mkhwebane. But it is also tactically astute. Throughout her report Ms Madonsela complains of how her investigation was hamstrung by a shortage of money and obstruction by the president. Her order (which Mr Zuma may now try to block) that the government appoint a commission that is “adequately resourced” and run by a judge chosen solely by the Chief Justice ought to lead to a robust probe into the relationship between Mr Zuma and his friends. Ms Madonsela has ordered that the commission report back in no more than 180 days after its appointment—starting the ticking of a clock that may count down Mr Zuma’s last days in office.
This article appeared in the Print Edition with the headline: Friends with benefits
From the print edition: Middle East and Africa