Former South African President Jacob Zuma has alleged before the Zondo Commission that charges against him of corruption and state capture stem from a conspiracy 30 years in the making. Zuma’s proffered counteraccusations include a poisoning attempt against him, a plot implicating the U.S. and the U.K., and spies working against him since 1990. His testimonies at the Zondo Commission, a public judicial inquiry charged with examining the allegations of state capture against Zuma, have persisted for a number of days; his supporters have rallied for him outside as he testifies. Arguably the most well-known charge against Zuma states that he allowed the Gupta family, with whom he reportedly has close ties, exert undue influence over South African resources and policies; other standing accusations against Zuma include accepting bribes, using public funds for personal home improvements, and illicitly selling military equipment in the 1990’s. The estimated loss from state capture under Zuma’s presidency, according to the politician Pravin Gordham, is roughly 100 billion rand, or US$7.2 billion. Zuma resigned from the presidency in February of 2018 in response to sundry corruption accusations, middling approval ratings, and repeated attempts at no confidence votes, but not before establishing, due to legal obligation, the very commission before which he now testifies.
Zuma maintains that the inquiry is politically motivated, driven by bias against him rather than a sincere want of justice. He has proclaimed: “This commission, from my understanding, was really created to have me coming here, and perhaps to find things on me. There has been a drive to remove me from the scene, a wish that I should disappear.” The allegations against him remain weighty; former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene claims that Zuma deliberately engineered energy polices to benefit himself and the Gupta family, one example being a sizable nuclear deal with Russia. When Nene failed to support the deal, he reports that, “I do believe I was removed as Minister of Finance for my refusal to toe the line in relation to certain projects.” Other witnesses include Themba Maseko, contending that Zuma directed government contracts towards the Guptas, and Mcebisi Jones, who claims that he was threatened with death after refusing a significant bribe from the same family.
Zuma’s presence and testimony at the hearings sets a positive ongoing standard for South African officials to comply with investigations, but his cooperation and his vague insinuations of conspiracy are not enough, on their own, to exculpate him. Although Zuma was forced to create the Zondo Commission, he is not legally required to participate in its present proceedings. As Christopher Clark of Al Jazeera argues, Zuma has at least established a precedent for legitimizing anti-corruption activities, even if he has been inconsistent in his support, threatening multiple times to withdraw from the hearings only to retract his threat hours later. That said, his testimonies thus far have been characterized by analysts as evasive and nebulous, permeated with unsubstantiated claims of conspiracy and non-answers. Given the considerable evidence of corruption during the Zuma presidency, especially the activities of the Gupta family (who have since left the country) that spurred the investigations and the testimonies from other significant witnesses, Zuma’s defense requires palpable material grounding.
The controversies surrounding Zuma correspond with the declining popularity of the African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa with widespread support since 1994, following the downfall of apartheid. While the ANC has not lost a major election since then, it garnered only about 57% of the vote in the 2019 National Assembly election, its lowest winning margin of any election. Zuma has threatened to expose others in the ANC amidst his many recent proclamations; his scandals only add to growing concerns of corruption in the ANC and South African politics. The testimonies have persisted from July 15th through the 19th as of this writing, despite Zuma’s wavering support. Zuma will also stand trial later this year for charges related to the aforementioned military equipment sales. The South African president representing the ANC since Zuma’s 2018 resignation has been Cyril Ramaphosa, who has since encountered his own corruption imputations.
The normative purpose of any anti-corruption proceedings must always be the ultimate well-being of a nation’s residents. The legality and ethics of Jacob Zuma’s actions and policies matter insofar as they impact the people of South Africa. The country is currently the most unequal in the world and boasts an unemployment rate in the high 20’s as of July 2019, and so political accountability is of the utmost priority. South Africans, as with the denizens of any nation, possess the right to hold their leaders to high standards; one must hope the Zondo Commission proceeds accordingly.
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