STAKES ARE HIGH
ANC on trial as election looms, says analyst
Deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo’s judicial commission investigating the alleged plunder of state funds during former president Jacob Zuma’s rule began public hearings on Monday that could have dire consequences for the ANC.
The probe is likely to implicate a number of the ANC’s past and serving leaders in state capture, which will inflict reputational damage it can ill afford as it gears up for elections in 2019.
Former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, who now oversees state companies, has said that more than R100bn may have been stolen.
"The ANC will be on trial through this commission," said Ralph Mathekga, a Johannesburg-based independent political analyst.
"This commission is likely to reveal the extent to which the ANC has been compromised."
Cyril Ramaphosa won control of the ANC in December and became president two months later after the party forced Zuma to step down following a scandal-marred tenure that lasted almost nine years and caused it to bleed support.
While Ramaphosa has pledged to clamp down on graft and restore public trust in state institutions as part of a drive to woo $100bn in new investment, law enforcement agencies have been slow in apprehending suspects implicated in the looting.
The hearings in Johannesburg may not unearth a slew of new information and its success will largely depend on whether there is appropriate follow-up by the police and prosecutors, says Ivor Sarakinsky, academic director at the Wits University School of Governance.
"So much of the information is already in the public domain," Sarakinsky said.
"The only way that the public is going to accept any government action is when the prosecution entities do their work and they start to see people in court and going to jail for the theft of public finances and the corruption that has taken place."
The ANC said the commission has its full support and urged its members to appear before it.
"The commission will assist to ensure that where wrongdoing was done, appropriate action is taken and people are held accountable," the party said in a statement on Monday.
"The allegations and reports on this matter have done immense damage to the image of the country and the confidence of ordinary citizens in state institutions."
In his opening statement, Zondo said the response to the commission’s appeal to the public for information of wrongdoing has been disappointing and he urged those with evidence to come forward.
He also said the panel’s work was delayed by the failure of the State Security Agency to expedite its security clearances.
The ANC has called on its members to come forward and contribute to the hearings.
When asked about the commission starting its work so close to the national elections in 2019 and about the possible effect on the ANC, Zizi Kodwa, who heads Ramaphosa’s office in Luthuli House said the party is "not on trial".
Kodwa said even though there are individuals in the party who by virtue of their membership in the ANC and by virtue of their deployment to the government are implicated, the party itself is not necessarily on trial.
"That does not mean they did everything they did ... on behalf of the ANC, " Kodwa said.
Zuma continues to campaign for the party in tumultuous KwaZulu-Natal and still enjoys support in a number of the party’s structures in the province and nationally.
Thuli Madonsela, the former public protector, ordered the establishment of the judicial probe after her own investigation indicated that Duduzane Zuma, the former president’s son, and the three Gupta brothers who were his business partners exercised undue influence over state contracts, appointments and decisions.
All of the four have denied any wrongdoing.
Lawyers acting for Zuma, his son and the Guptas asked the commission to give them more time to prepare for the cross-examination of witnesses and evidence, saying they had only been informed this month that their clients could be implicated.
‘We have not been given due notice," Mike Hellens, the head of Ajay Gupta’s legal team, said to the panel. "We believe we would be ready to cross-examine by the first week of September."
The commission expects to take two years to probe an array of deals between state entities and private businesses and interview scores of witnesses, many of whom might be reluctant to give evidence to the commission because they risk implicating themselves.
Former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas is due to testify about his allegations that one of the Gupta brothers offered him the finance minister’s post, R600,000 in cash and another R600m deposited into an account of his choice on condition that he fired Treasury officials who were blocking the deals that the family’s companies wanted to conclude with state firms.
Other witnesses to be called over the next few weeks include former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor, who also said that the Guptas offered her a cabinet position, and Themba Maseko, the former head of the government communication service. He told the Sunday Times newspaper that Zuma instructed him to assist the Guptas.
"The commission as a process is important because it may contribute towards accountability and transparency," said Dirk Kotze, a political science professor at Unisa in Pretoria. "But the final test will be what they do afterwards, once they have the findings of the commission."
Senior ANC members, such as Jonas, Gordhan and finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, who was axed during his first stint as finance minister and replaced with the short-lived tenure of Des van Rooyen in the position, will be testifying, the commission’s head of legal, Paul Pretorius, said on Monday.
Zondo has also called on South Africans to come forward with information that would be relevant to the inquiry.
Former acting procurement chief in the Treasury Willie Mathebula is expected to testify on Tuesday. His testimony is expected to deal with procurement processes.
Jonas is scheduled to testify at the commission on Friday.
The first round of hearings is expected to take about three weeks, Zondo said, but he added that they could take even longer.
Bloomberg, with Natasha Marrian