South Africa’s Jacob Zuma said corruption allegations that ended his presidency were part of a vast conspiracy against him, as he used his first appearance before a judicial inquiry to deny being “king of corrupt people”.
Mr Zuma said the claims that he helped the Guptas business family loot the state during his rule were an “exaggeration” that his enemies used to unseat him, and that they had been aided by foreign intelligence agencies.
“I’ve been vilified, alleged to be the king of corrupt people . . . there’s been a drive to remove me from the scene . . . a conspiracy against me,” Mr Zuma said at the start of his testimony into the “capture” of the state by the Guptas.
South Africa’s governing African National Congress last year fired Mr Zuma and replaced him with Cyril Ramaphosa, as the country’s biggest post-apartheid political scandal engulfed the party. Mr Zuma’s voluntary appearance at the hearing is a watershed moment in a saga that it is likely to exacerbate infighting in the ANC, as Mr Ramaphosa battles to root out graft in the party’s ranks.
South Africans have for months been gripped by the often lurid testimonies that have emerged from the inquiry, as a series of former ministers and officials have revealed shocking allegations of corruption in Mr Zuma’s administration, including that he gave the Guptas control over public appointments.
When one ex-minister, Ngaoko Ramatlhodi, alleged that the former president auctioned executive authority to the family, Mr Zuma responded: “There is nothing of that kind . . . What did I auction? Table Mountain? Or Johannesburg?”
To gasps from the public gallery, Mr Zuma then claimed that Mr Ramatlhodi had been recruited as a spy as a student. Mr Ramatlhodi, who held the several portfolios under Mr Zuma, said this was “nonsense” and challenged the former president to take a lie-detector test.
In a testimony that lasted several hours, Mr Zuma said the plots against him had begun when foreign intelligence agencies infiltrated the ANC before it took power in 1994.
“There is a plan to deal with Zuma, and Zuma has been dealt with,” he said as he claimed the allegations were linked to these murky political battles. “I’ve survived attempts to kill me,” he said, claiming that “suicide bombers” had been engaged to kill him.
The Guptas once controlled a mining-to-media empire in South Africa and went into business with Mr Zuma’s son. The businesses collapsed and they left the country as Mr Zuma lost his decade-long grip on power. The family denies corruption.
“I never did anything unlawful with them . . . they were just friends,” Mr Zuma said of the Indian-born trio of brothers, adding that others in the ANC introduced the family to him.
He admitted that the Guptas set up the New Age newspaper and a television channel at his suggestion after he was angered by “very critical” media, but that this was nothing sinister. The family “loved this name, the New Age” that he suggested, Mr Zuma said. “This was a very normal interaction” and there was no issue when Gupta-owned media sought advertising from government, he added.
Mr Zuma’s former spokesperson has told the inquiry that Mr Zuma pressured him to support the family’s media enterprises. Mr Zuma said on Monday that he did not remember making such a call.
Khaya Sithole, a political analyst, said the testimony was “vintage Zuma. Absolutely everyone and everything conspired against him. His sense of complicity in any of the issues does not exist in his mind.”
The inquiry, led by South Africa’s deputy chief justice, will quiz the former president for the remainder of the week. Mr Ramaphosa is also set to give testimony before the justices make their recommendations next year.