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Ramaphosa Should Have Spoken Out on Zuma-Era Graft, South Africa Justice Says

·4 min read

(Bloomberg) -- South African President Cyril Ramaphosa should have spoken out to protest rampant corruption during his predecessor’s reign and didn’t do enough to stop the theft of billions of dollars of taxpayer funds, a judicial inquiry found.

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The finding is the second blow in recent weeks to the credibility of the 69-year-old, who came to power in 2018 promising to cleanse his country and the ruling African National Congress of graft after Jacob Zuma’s scandal-ridden tenure. Earlier this month, ex-spy chief Arthur Fraser laid criminal charges against Ramaphosa, saying he had concealed the theft of more than $4 million from his farm. The president has denied breaking the law.

Ramaphosa’s testimony that he didn’t act more decisively to stop the rot because he would have been removed by Zuma and the graft would have continued untrammeled, was dismissed by Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. Ramaphosa has estimated that more than 500 billion rand ($31 billion) was stolen from state during Zuma’s nine-year tenure. The ex-president has denied wrongdoing.

If Ramaphosa had “spoken out firmly against state capture and wrongdoing, and President Zuma fired him, that would have given hope to a lot of other members of cabinet who may have been looking to someone to lead,” Zondo said in his final set of findings, which were released on Wednesday after a probe that’s spanned almost four years. “The option he chose did not prevent state capture from continuing,” he said, using a local term for government-related corruption.

The findings against Ramaphosa and the ANC were a searing critique of the party that’s ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Ramaphosa could have stopped the corruption “but it would require a certain level of ethical commitment which is difficult to presume could have existed within the ANC,” Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst, said. “How things are coming out now makes it difficult for Ramaphosa to even say to people that he wants to enforce the Zondo commission’s findings.”

The chief justice noted that there were media reports of corruption involving members of the Gupta family, who were alleged to have worked with Zuma to defraud the state, since 2010. Two of the three Gupta brothers were arrested in Dubai this month on an international warrant and South Africa is seeking their extradition. They have denied wrongdoing.

Read: Meet the Guptas, Symbols of South African Corruption: QuickTake

The ANC claimed not to have minutes of certain meetings it held between 2012 and 2017, an assertion Zondo said was “improbable.” Despite repeated undertakings, the party had done nothing to stamp out corruption within its ranks, and Ramaphosa and other senior leaders likely knew more about the graft than has been disclosed, he said.

It is “still somewhat opaque” as to what President Ramaphosa knew, Zondo said.

Zondo’s findings challenge Ramaphosa’s reputation as an anti-corruption “champion,” according to Mathekga, and the position the president finds himself in makes him vulnerable. “We know he’s an enthusiast” about fighting corruption, but Zondo’s findings dampen the momentum, Mathekga said.

ANC Rebuilding

“The ANC is engaging with the findings and recommendations of the commission to determine how these can help to enhance the process of fundamental renewal and rebuilding within our movement,” the party said in a statement after the release of the latest findings.

Zondo expressed little confidence that the ANC can redeem itself after it presided over a period in which the average South African became poorer, the power and rail utilities and other state companies neared collapse, and the country ultimately lost its investment grade credit ratings.

“For as long as the ANC is in power, the failure of the ANC to successfully reform and renew itself as undertaken by President Ramaphosa, will render the South African state unable to rid itself of the scourge of state capture and corruption,” he said.

“If the ANC had not protected President Zuma and he had been removed from office, the Guptas would probably have fled as they did in 2018 and therefore would not have looted the way they did. The ANC must take responsibility for this,” the judge said. “Billions of rands of taxpayers’ money would have been saved.”

Read: The Brothers Who Bought South Africa

(Updates with analyst comment in 10th paragraph)

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