S.Africa's Ramaphosa admits rampant state graft while he was VP

Johannesburg, South Africa Updated: Aug 11, 2021, 11:21 PM IST

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa Photograph:(Reuters)

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Cyril Ramaphosa was appearing before a judicial panel probing the alleged mass looting of state coffers during Zuma's 2009-2018 presidency

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday conceded there had been rampant state corruption while he was deputy to ex-president Jacob Zuma, but said he did not resign as that would have stymied his efforts to fight the rot.

Ramaphosa was appearing before a judicial panel probing the alleged mass looting of state coffers during Zuma's 2009-2018 presidency.

He served as Zuma's deputy for four years from 2014 before succeeding him in February 2018.

Faced with what he called "unfettered" state graft, he said had various choices.

"The first option for me was to resign, the second would have been to speak out, and the third would have been to acquiesce and abet, to just go along," or remain and resist," Ramaphosa said.

But had he quit his job, that "would have significantly impaired my ability to contribute to bring about an end" to the graft, he argued.

Ramaphosa said he decided to stay in order to "resist some of the more egregious and obvious abuses of power."

It is Ramaphosa's second appearance before the panel. During his first testimony in April, he had evaded questions about his knowledge of the signs and depths of the malfeasance.

His predecessor, Zuma played cat-and-mouse with the commission, answering questions only once in 2019 before walking out, saying he was being treated like a criminal.

This year, the country's top court ordered Zuma to return but he refused, and was last month handed a 15-month jail term for contempt.

His detention triggered widespread unrest that saw stores pillaged, torched and infrastructure destroyed. 

The riots were fuelled by deeper frustrations over corruption which feeds into the state's failures and worsening poverty — issues that stem from Zuma's tenure.

Zuma, is seeking to have his sentence reviewed. 

Met the Guptas

The graft inquiry is a result of a 2016 investigation by the country's ombudswoman which found evidence that Zuma allowed the Guptas, a wealthy Indian migrant business family who won lucrative contracts with state companies, undue influence over the government.

Ramaphosa, who came to power on a vow to fight corruption, also told the panel that had he chosen to be confrontational under Zuma, he would have risked being fired, and "my ability to effect change would have been greatly constrained, if not brought to an end."

Ramaphosa maintained a degree of ignorance on Wednesday, saying he had only met the Guptas on a handful of occasions and thought them to be friends of Zuma.

Since taking office, Ramaphosa said, he has taken strides in clearing out corruption, and more recently, having the state's Covid-19 pandemic funding scrutinised by auditors.

Yet, Ramaphosa has been criticised for being slow to act on graft scandals that have creeped up under his reign.

His recent health minister Zweli Mkhize, who resigned earlier this month, faces allegations of benefitting himself and his family through a Covid-19-related communications contract.

During his first appearance before the commission in April, Ramaphosa admitted that graft had taken root within the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which has governed the nation since the end of the apartheid in 1994.

The practice involved some ANC members and leaders, he said.

But "now having drawn a line in the sand we are going now to be very serious dealing with corruption," he told the panel. 

Ramaphosa's testimony is scheduled to run through Thursday

The graft inquiry will make recommendations to prosecutors when it concludes at the end of September.

Attendance at the hearing was limited due to Covid-19 restrictions, although opposition Democratic Alliance party leader John Steenhuisen and Ramaphosa's wife Tshepo Motsepe were among those in the gallery.