Former South African President Jacob Zuma told a corruption inquiry enemies plotted to bring him down and he never broke the law with the business family at the centre of an influence-peddling scandal.
Zuma struck a defiant tone at the public inquiry, saying he was the victim of “character assassination” by enemies who tried to get rid of him for more than 20 years.
His appearance at the inquiry – set up to test allegations Zuma allowed cronies to plunder state resources and influence government appointments – marked a dramatic fall from grace for a politician who long dominated the country’s politics.
Zuma, ousted by the governing African National Congress (ANC) in February 2018 and replaced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, consistently denied wrongdoing during his nine years in power.
Referring to the three Gupta brothers, Zuma said: “I never did anything with them unlawfully, they just remained friends. Never, never did I discuss any matter that does not belong to them”.
“They were businesspeople and successful businesspeople,” Zuma continued. “I’m not a businessperson, I know nothing about business, I’m a politician, I know something about politics.”
Under pressure from rivals in the ANC, Zuma set up the corruption inquiry he now sits before in his final weeks as president, as a number of his colleagues, including Ramaphosa, feared scandals surrounding Zuma could indelibly tarnish the party’s reputation.
Zuma avoided establishing the inquiry since a 2016 report by South Africa’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Public Protector, instructed him to do so to investigate allegations the Gupta brothers influenced ministerial appointments and improperly won state contracts.
The Gupta family denied the accusations and left South Africa around the time Zuma was ousted.
“I’ve been vilified, alleged to be the king of corrupt people,” Zuma (77) said in opening remarks to the hearing in Johannesburg, broadcast live on South African television. “There has been a drive to remove me from the scene…a conspiracy against me.”
He could trace this to the early 1990s, when he received an intelligence report that two foreign intelligence agencies and a branch of the apartheid government in power at the time came up with a strategy to get rid of him.
He did not name the foreign intelligence agencies, only that they were from “big countries”.
“My enemies took a decision Zuma must be removed from decision-making structures of the ANC. That’s why the character assassination, that is the beginning of the process that put me where I am today,” Zuma said.
Zuma hinted he could spill the beans on ANC comrades who spoke out against him.
“I’ve been respectful to comrades maybe I’ve reached a point where that must take a back seat.”
Asked about Zuma’s comments, ANC spokesman Pule Mabe said the party would give the inquiry space to work.
“The ANC is not on trial here,” Mabe said.
Natasha Mazzone, a senior lawmaker with the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), said Zuma was trying to whitewash serious allegations.
“The fact that we’ve heard a conspiracy theory dating back to 1990 is proof the real truth is going to take a long time to extract,” Mazzone said.
Rudie Heyneke from the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) said the inquiry could find it difficult to pin much on Zuma because he had “always been careful to stay a layer or two away from the action”.
‘HANDS OFF ZUMA’
Zuma still has allies and several dozen supporters broke into clapping and chants of “Zuma” as he entered the hearing room.
Outside, supporters wearing military clothing emblazoned with the emblem of the former armed wing of the ANC shouted: “Hands off Zuma!”
One, Bongani Nkosi, said he thought the inquiry was out to get Zuma and he had enemies because he supported radical economic policies to help poor black people.
Ramaphosa, Zuma’s former deputy, made sweeping personnel changes in government and state-owned companies to curb corruption and revive a stagnant economy.
He is hampered by the lingering influence Zuma and his allies exert over the ANC’s top decision-making bodies, as well as by the scale of the problems he inherited.
Zuma, expected to give testimony to the inquiry until Friday, was in court on several occasions over the past year to answer corruption charges linked to a deal to buy military hardware in the 1990s.
The inquiry, headed by South Africa’s deputy chief justice, Raymond Zondo, held its first hearing in August and is due to finish next year.