Former South African President Jacob Zuma ducked and dived on his second day of testimony at a corruption inquiry, saying he knew nothing about his business friends the Guptas allegedly offering a former lawmaker a ministerial position.
The inquiry is spotlighting allegations of graft clouding Zuma’s nine year presidency, but analysts say if it fails to pin a case on him it could dent President Cyril Ramaphosa’s anti-corruption drive.
Ramaphosa’s efforts to clean up politics are already hampered by the lingering influence Zuma and his allies exert over the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
Allegations that Zuma allowed the three Gupta brothers to plunder state resources and influence senior government appointments are a main area of focus for the inquiry, which began in August and is expected to last into next year.
The Guptas denied the allegations against them, as has Zuma, ousted by the ANC in February 2018 and replaced by Ramaphosa.
State prosecutors are following the inquiry and could open cases if sufficient evidence of wrongdoing emerges. Under pressure from his party, Zuma agreed to set up the inquiry shortly before he left office.
Asked about an incident where one of the Indian-born Guptas allegedly offered former ANC lawmaker Vytjie Mentor the position of minister of public enterprises, Zuma said on Tuesday: “I know nothing about it”, repeating the same phrase several times and once chuckling.
Mentor told the inquiry the offer of the ministerial post was conditional on her cancelling a lucrative South African Airways route to India.
She said she refused the offer, made in 2010 when Zuma was at one of the Gupta residences.
“No there was nothing of that nature. I was never in some room,” Zuma said when asked whether he was in the Gupta home when the job offer was allegedly made to Mentor.
Zuma (77) said he never discussed ministerial appointments with the Guptas.
Witnesses other than Mentor told the inquiry the Guptas were privy to information about senior government appointments.
Zuma also denied he issued an instruction to remove Themba Maseko, former head of the government communications service, from his position after Maseko refused to direct state advertising money to the Gupta media company in 2011.
Maseko told the inquiry Zuma telephoned him and told him to help the Guptas. Zuma said on Monday he did not remember calling Maseko.
Zuma told the inquiry in opening remarks on Tuesday he received a death threat after testimony the previous day, when he denied allegations of graft and said his enemies plotted decades ago to get rid of him.
Zuma said on Monday, his first day of testimony, he could trace the plot to oust him back to foreign intelligence services and the apartheid government in the 1990s.
The country’s deputy chief justice, Raymond Zondo, who is overseeing the inquiry, said the alleged death threat from an unknown caller against Zuma and his children was unacceptable.
As a former president, Zuma is protected by high-level state security. Police spokesman Vishnu Naidoo did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether police had opened an investigation after Zuma’s comments.
On Tuesday, Zuma’s lawyers argued the inquiry’s line of questioning was inappropriate amounting to cross-examination. This saw a brief delay before the presiding judge urged those questioning Zuma to bear this in mind.
Zuma’s lawyers said testimony at the inquiry so far had not implicated the former president in corruption or fraud, so he should not be cross-examined but should answer questions for clarification.
On Monday, Zuma denied he had done anything unlawful with the Guptas, who left South Africa around the time Zuma was ousted.
Zuma, expected to testify until Friday, was supported at the inquiry by his one of his sons as well as prominent allies including ex-finance minister Malusi Gigaba.
ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule, a close Zuma ally, addressed reporters during a break in the proceedings and suggested the inquiry’s focus on the Gupta family was misguided.
Magashule, in charge of the day-to-day running of the ANC, made comments directly contradicting Ramaphosa and his faction in the ANC in recent months.
“I don’t know why South Africa is not actually investigating every company which has worked with government and why we are actually targeting one particular company and family,” Magashule said. “Tell me which company has not met with government.”
Magashule declined to answer a question about whether he thought the inquiry was biased, as Zuma’s lawyers said.