SOUTH Africa’s ex-president Jacob Zuma on Tuesday said he had received a death threat after his testimony the previous day to an inquiry on corruption.
Appearing for the second day at the commision of inquiry into state capture, Zuma said his personal assistant received a phone call late on Monday from an unknown caller threatening to kill Zuma and his children.
The country’s deputy chief justice, Raymond Zondo, who is overseeing the inquiry, said the threats were unacceptable.
There was no immediate comment from the police.
Zuma on Monday defended himself at the commision of inquiry, where he is accused of having presided over a corrupt government.
Over the past year, this commission, chaired by the Vice-President of the Constitutional Court Raymond Zondo, has heard from dozens of ministers, elected officials, businessmen and senior civil servants who have come to expose the shady cases of the Zuma era (2009-2018).
The former head of state, 77, is suspected of illegally granting lucrative public contracts and undue advantages to a sulfurous family of Indian businessmen with whom he is close, the Gupta.
Zuma told the inquiry that there was a conspiracy against him and that his enemies had subjected him to a ‘character assassination’ because they wanted him out of power.
‘This commission, from my understanding, was really created to have me coming here, and perhaps to find things on me,’ Zuma said in his opening remarks at the inquiry, looking relaxed and wearing a dark suit.
‘There has been a drive to remove me from the scene, a wish that I should disappear.’
About his controversial links to the Gupta family, Zuma said he had never broken the law with them, describing the businessmen at the centre of an influence-peddling scandal as friends.
‘I never did anything with them (the Guptas) unlawfully, they just remained friends. … Never, never did I discuss any matter that does not belong to them,’ Zuma told the inquiry.
‘They were businesspeople and successful businesspeople,’ Zuma continued, referring to the three Gupta brothers. ‘I’m not a businessperson, I know nothing about business, I’m a politician, I know something about politics.’
He said 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 that was in power at the time had come up with a strategy to get rid of him.
He did not name where the foreign intelligence agencies came from, only that they were from ‘big countries’.
‘They (my enemies) took a decision that Zuma must be removed from the decision-making structures of the ANC. That’s why the character assassination, that is the beginning of the process that has put me where I am today,’ Zuma said.
Zuma also hinted that he could spill the beans on ANC comrades who had spoken out against him.
‘I’ve been respectful to comrades, maybe I’ve reached a point where that must take a back seat.’
Jacob Zuma was forced by his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, to resign a year and a half ago at the head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the country.
But he has always denied that he was involved in all the scandals that have splashed his reign.
Reactions to Zuma’s testimony
Asked about Zuma’s comments, ANC spokesman Pule Mabe said the party would give the inquiry space to do its work.
‘The ANC is not on trial here,’ Mabe said.
Natasha Mazzone, a senior lawmaker with the opposition Democratic Alliance party, said Zuma was trying to whitewash serious allegations.
‘The fact that we’ve heard a conspiracy theory dating back to 1990 is proof that the real truth is going to take a long time to extract,’ Mazzone said.
Rudie Heyneke from the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse 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.’
Reservations from Zuma’s lawyers
In a letter made public last month, his lawyer Daniel Mantsha questioned the impartiality of the commission of inquiry by accusing it of seeking ‘only one truth’ and wanting to ‘trap and humiliate’ his client.
Although he did not obtain the list of questions that Judge Zondo plans to ask him, Jacob Zuma agreed to respond to his non-binding summons, in principle until Friday, July 19. But there is still doubt about the attitude he will adopt at the hearing, which will be broadcast live on television.
‘The committee asked me to come and testify and provide it with any information I may have in my possession,’ Zuma told the press last week. ‘I’m going to go and we’ll see how things turn out.’
The case against Zuma
Since it launched its hearings, the Zondo Commission has compiled a thick case against the former president.
A former minister, Mcebisi Jonas, came to tell how the Gupta brothers had come to offer him in 2015 the morocco Finance in exchange for his help in obtaining contracts and a bribe of 600 million rand (nearly 40 million euros).
According to Jonas, Ajay Gupta then told that ‘You have to understand that we control everything (…) and that the old man (Zuma) will do whatever he tells us to do.’
Another Finance Minister, Nhlanhla Nene, testified that he was thanked the same year by Jacob Zuma for refusing a lucrative nuclear contract project that would have benefited the same Gupta brothers, owners of a uranium mine.
In turn, the current Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan also settled his accounts with Jacob Zuma, accusing him of having ‘allowed a climate of impunity allowing corruption’ and the ‘capture of the State’ by private interests.
Gordhan has estimated that 100 billion rand (€6 billion) of public funds have been diverted in recent years in his country.
The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has been a long-time critic of the turpitudes of the Zuma regime and welcomed its hearing. ‘There can be no immunity for Jacob Zuma,’ said MP Natasha Mazzone, “he must be held accountable for his role in capturing the state.
Despite all the accusations against him, the former president has still not been formally charged. He is currently being prosecuted in only one case involving bribes paid on the margins of an arms contract signed… twenty years ago.
In defence of Zuma
Zuma still has allies and a group of 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 of them, Bongani Nkosi, said he thought the inquiry was out to get Zuma and that he had enemies because he supported radical economic policies to help poor black people.
Ramaphosa, Zuma’s former deputy, has made sweeping personnel changes in government and state-owned companies as part of an effort to curb corruption and revive the stagnant economy.
But he has been hampered by the lingering influence that 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 from Monday to Friday, has also been in court on several occasions over the past year to answer corruption charges linked to a deal to buy military hardware for the armed forces in the 1990s.
The inquiry is a rare example of an African leader being brought to book soon after losing power.