South Africa’s ruling African National Congress allowed systematic looting over the past decade “under our watch,” President Cyril Ramaphosa told a judicial inquiry that is examining the country’s biggest post-apartheid scandal.
The movement that has governed South Africa for 27 years “could and should have done more to prevent the abuse of power and misappropriation of resources” that marked the presidency of his predecessor Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa said on Wednesday.
The scandal has been estimated by Ramaphosa himself to have cost the economy tens of billions of dollars after crucial institutions such as the revenue service and state power monopoly were hollowed out.
The remarks by Ramaphosa, who appeared before the inquiry as leader of the ANC, are the most direct acknowledgment yet of the party’s failings in the so-called state capture era and come ahead of local elections later this year. But Ramaphosa stopped short of a full apology and said “the recognition of these facts does not mean that the ANC is itself corrupt or uniquely affected by corruption”.
The inquiry is investigating claims that Zuma allowed the Guptas, a business family, to control cabinet appointments and state contracts for the benefit of their mining-to-media empire before the party replaced him with Ramaphosa, in 2018. Ramaphosa was previously Zuma’s deputy.
Infighting and factionalism in the party over access to largesse “provided fertile ground for state capture,” Ramaphosa said, in testimony that stood in contrast with a rambling 2019 appearance by Zuma, who accused his detractors of being allied with foreign intelligence agencies. Zuma has since repeatedly refused to reappear to answer multiple accusations of graft by dozens of inquiry witnesses.
Ramaphosa also defended the party against claims that its political appointees ransacked state institutions as a rule. “Cadre deployment cannot be faulted in principle” even if the policy had “weaknesses,” he said.
The cautious remarks reflect a fraught moment for Ramaphosa’s control of the party. The ANC has called for members accused of corruption to step down this month.
But Ace Magashule, the ANC’s powerful secretary-general and an acolyte of the former president, is likely to resist the call, which will plunge the ANC into more infighting if it tries to suspend him.
South Africa’s constitutional court is also about to decide whether Zuma should be jailed for defying the inquiry’s summons. Zuma has recently railed against “judicial corruption” and “stooges of these so-called defenders of our democracy”. He denies wrongdoing.
After years of testimony, the state capture inquiry is expected to wrap up its work within weeks, with findings that could be used to back prosecutions. These have so far been rare in the saga, even with international support for Ramaphosa’s clean-up.
This week the UK added the Guptas to an anti-corruption sanctions list over their role in “a long-running process of corruption in South Africa which caused significant damage to its economy”. The sanctions follow similar US measures against the Guptas in 2019 — and also the family’s flight from South Africa in 2018 as Zuma’s presidency crumbled. South Africa has yet to extradite members of the family, who deny wrongdoing.