Graft Probe Hearings Put South Africa's ANC `on Trial'

(Bloomberg) -- A South African judicial commission investigating the alleged plunder of state funds during former President Jacob Zuma’s rule began public hearings on Monday that could have potentially dire consequences for the ruling party.

The probe led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, 58, will likely implicate a number of the African National Congress’s past and serving leaders in what’s widely become known as state capture -- reputational damage it can ill afford as it gears up to contest next year’s elections. Ex-Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who now oversees state companies, has said more than 100 billion rand ($6.8 billion) may have been stolen.

Graft Probe Hearings Put South Africa's ANC `on Trial'

“The ANC will be on trial through this commission,” Ralph Mathekga, a Johannesburg-based independent political analyst, said by phone. “This commission is likely to reveal the extent to which the ANC as a party has been compromised.”

Cyril Ramaphosa, 65, won control of the ANC in December and became president two months later after the party forced Zuma to step down following a scandal-marred tenure that lasted almost nine years and caused it to bleed support. While he’s pledged to clamp down on graft and restore public trust in state institutions as part of a drive to woo $100 billion in new investment, law enforcement agencies have been slow in apprehending suspects implicated in the looting.

Appropriate Follow-Up

The first witnesses are due to appear before the commission on Tuesday. The hearings in Johannesburg may not unearth a slew of new information and its success will largely depend on whether there is appropriate follow-up by the police and prosecutors, according to Ivor Sarakinsky, academic director at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance.

“So much of the information is already in the public domain,” Sarakinsky said by phone. “The only way that the public is going to accept any government action is when the prosecution entities do their work and they start to see people in court and going to jail for the theft of public finances and the corruption that has taken place.”

Ruling Party Support

The ruling party said the commission has its full support and urged its members to appear before it.

“The commission will assist to ensure that where wrongdoing was done, appropriate action is taken and people are held accountable,” the party said in an emailed statement on Monday. “The allegations and reports on this matter have done immense damage to the image of the country and the confidence of ordinary citizens in state institutions.”

In his opening statement, Zondo said the response to the commission’s appeal to the public for information of wrongdoing had been disappointing and he urged those with evidence to come forward. He also said the panel’s work was delayed by the failure of the State Security Agency to expedite its security clearances.

Ex-President’s Son

Thuli Madonsela, the nation’s former anti-graft ombudsman, ordered the establishment of the judicial probe after her own investigation indicated that Duduzane Zuma, the ex-president’s son, and the three Gupta brothers who were his business partners, had exercised undue influence over state contracts, appointments and decisions. They have all denied wrongdoing.

Lawyers acting for Zuma, his son and the Guptas requested the commission to give them more time to prepare for the cross-examination of witnesses and evidence, saying they had only been informed that their clients could be implicated on Aug. 6.

‘We have not been given due notice,” Mike Hellens, head of Ajay Gupta’s legal team, told the panel. “We believe we would be ready to cross examine by the first week of September.”

Reluctant Witnesses

The commission expects to take two years to probe an array of deals between state entities and private businesses and interview scores of witnesses, many of whom may be reluctant to give evidence because they risk implicating themselves.

Former Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas is due to testify about his allegations that one of the Gupta brothers offered him the finance minister’s post, 600,000 rand in cash and another 600 million rand deposited into an account of his choice on condition he fire treasury officials who were blocking deals the family’s companies wanted to do with state firms.

Other witnesses to be called over the next few weeks include former ANC lawmaker Vytjie Mentor, who also said the Gupta offered her a cabinet position, and Themba Maseko, the former head of the government communication service who told Johannesburg’s Sunday Times newspaper that Zuma instructed him to help the Guptas.

“The commission as a process is important because it may contribute toward accountability and transparency,” said Dirk Kotze, a political science professor at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. “But the final test will be what they do afterward once they have the findings of the commission.”

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