Employees and contractors of the Optimum Coal Mine in Hendrina, owned by the controversial Gupta family, demonstrate with a placard reading 'Guptas - stop gambling with our lives' in front of the gates of the mine in Hendrina, South Africa, on February 22, 2018. Workers are on strike because of the Bank of Baroda withdrawing Services in South Africa and reduced the operations to a standstill as they marched to hand over a memorandum to the company's CEO. / AFP PHOTO / MARCO LONGARI (Photo credit should read MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters demonstrate against the Gupta family © AFP

For South Africans, the public inquiry into the ‘state capture’ of former president Jacob Zuma’s government has been both eye-opening and cathartic — daily evidence of the malign influence of the powerful Gupta business family.

Testimony by Ngoako Ramatlhodi, a former mining minister, was typical. The high-ranking member of the ruling African National Congress told the inquiry recently that the Guptas were “a python wrapped around” Mr Zuma as the ex-president “auctioned off executive authority”.

“This relationship of yours with these guys is toxic, why don’t you end it?” Mr Ramatlhodi said he and other ANC members had told Mr Zuma. The Gupta brothers, he added, wanted to show they “had captured the republic”.

Established in August a few months after the ANC removed Mr Zuma from office in a bitter power struggle, the commission of Inquiry into State Capture was meant to draw a line under a scandal that has shaken South Africa to its core.

The hearings were about “finding out the truth, what really happened”, Cyril Ramaphosa, Mr Zuma’s successor, said last month as he insisted that “more and more light is being shed” on the affair.

The trade unionist turned tycoon came to office with a pledge to end years of corruption and institutional decay in South Africa, which he hopes will convince disillusioned voters to return to the ANC in elections next year.

But the most striking result of the first few months of hearings has been to expose how deep the Guptas’ influence extended into the ANC and the government. This underlines the challenge facing Mr Ramaphosa and the woes of a party that has led South Africa continuously since the end of apartheid.

“The ANC is under siege and on trial at the commission. This is proxy war,” said Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst.

Revelations such as Mr Ramatlhodi’s have become nightly news in South Africa — that is, when TV viewers are not left in the dark by power blackouts caused by the crisis at state-owned utility, Eskom, which is among the alleged victims of the looting of government assets.

Time and again the ANC has being embarrassed by testimony showing how its top ranks failed to act as the Guptas gained traction in the state. ANC leaders have also been criticised for seeming to put pressure on banks that had closed Gupta company accounts at the height of the scandal.

Mr Ramaphosa was Mr Zuma’s deputy for four years, although there have been no allegations against him of wrongdoing involving the Guptas. Yet he is likely to face difficult questions at the inquiry before May’s elections.

Meanwhile, Mr Zuma and the Guptas, who deny all the allegations against them, are staying away from proceedings. The Guptas left South Africa for Dubai as Mr Zuma fell from power and their mining-to-media empire collapsed. Allies of the ex-president are trying to intimidate their enemies in the ANC from testifying, analysts say.

“The evidence emerging has really gripped the attention of the nation,” said Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, a legal non-governmental organisation. “Each day, it gets more and more explosive.”

At the same time, post-apartheid South Africa has a history of inquiries that resulted in little or no accountability. They included probes into police killings of striking mineworkers and past ANC corruption.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma waits ahead of his court hearing in Pietermaritzburg, on November 30, 2018. - Zuma, 76, who was forced to resign in February, has been charged with 16 counts of graft linked to an arms deal from before he became president. (Photo by ROGAN WARD / POOL / AFP)ROGAN WARD/AFP/Getty Images
Former South African President Jacob Zuma in court in Pietermaritzburg in November © AFP

The weakening of police and prosecutorial institutions under Mr Zuma, allegedly to provide cover for looting, has exacerbated this. As Mr Ramatlhodi said he told fellow ANC leaders at the height of the Gupta scandal: “The next president is going to inherit an empty office . . . we are going to inherit an empty state.”

An investigation was opened into the Guptas before Mr Zuma left power. The operation supported the first criminal prosecution against the family, over allegations they laundered state funds abroad through a dairy project.

But the prosecution has since foundered. It was withdrawn this month, lawyers say temporarily so that the state can muster stronger evidence.

This prompted Ajay Gupta, the most prominent of the brothers, to speak out. “I am confident that this matter will never see the light of day again,” he said in a statement. The family has cited the “unbridled and reckless abuse” of the prosecutions against them as a reason not to return to South Africa to testify at the inquiry.

The failure heightens the pressure on Shamila Batohi, who was appointed this month as director of public prosecutions by Mr Ramaphosa to replace a Zuma placeman.

Ms Batohi, who will take up her post after a stint advising at the International Criminal Court, has hinted about setting up a specialist unit to focus on state-capture crimes.

Such a unit would need approval from Mr Ramaphosa, although Mr Naidoo said it would be difficult for him to say no. “We need to see prosecutions soon,” he said.

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