South Africa’s Zuma faces criminal investigation

A South African corruption inquiry has ordered that a criminal complaint be filed with police against the former president after he absconded from the investigation into the country’s biggest post-apartheid graft scandal.

Last week Jacob Zuma defied a subpoena and walked out of the Johannesburg base of the inquiry, which is investigating claims of systemic corruption during his nine-year tenure.

On Monday Raymond Zondo, the inquiry’s presiding judge, ordered that a criminal complaint be filed against Mr Zuma for defiance of the summons to answer evidence relating to his involvement.

The criminal complaint was necessary “given the seriousness of Mr Zuma’s conduct and the impact it may have on the work of the commission, and the need to ensure we give effect to the constitutional provisions that all are equal before the law”, Mr Zondo, South Africa’s deputy chief justice, said. He will also issue a fresh summons for Mr Zuma.

Mr Zondo’s inquiry has been the most high-profile symbol of a clean-up promised by Mr Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, after the ruling African National Congress ousted Mr Zuma in 2018. The looting cost Africa’s most industrialised nation at least R500bn ($33bn), Mr Ramaphosa has said.

Mr Zuma left proceedings after his lawyers failed to get Mr Zondo to recuse himself from the inquiry over what the former president claimed were their personal ties.

“President Zuma assures us that he would rather face jail than allow himself to be bullied by an irregular, manipulated and unlawful process,” the former president’s charitable foundation said last week of the possibility that he would be arrested for defying his summons. 

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Since the inquiry began its near-daily sessions two years ago, more than 30 witnesses have accused Mr Zuma of helping to loot the state and advance private interests through the manipulation of public contracts and appointments at state companies and in government.

Mr Zuma denies wrongdoing and used a brief appearance at the inquiry last year to portray the commission and the scandal over state capture as a “drive to remove me from the scene . . . a conspiracy against me”. Mr Zuma withdrew before he could be fully cross-examined.

Lawyers and activists have said that Mr Zuma’s ploys to avoid a return reflect his history of using legal obstacles to bog down investigations into his conduct, sometimes known as the “Stalingrad” strategy.

“This is a very serious matter because he has openly defied a summons to appear and give evidence to the commission,” Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, a legal NGO, said. If Mr Zuma’s walkout was not met with a firm legal response, it might send a signal to other inquiry witnesses that they need not appear when summoned, Mr Naidoo added.

At stake is the integrity of South Africa’s judicial system at a time when the reckoning over corruption in the ANC is reaching the stage of high-level prosecutions.

Ace Magashule, the ANC secretary-general and an acolyte of Mr Zuma, became the most senior politician to be prosecuted so far when he appeared in court this month on corruption charges.

Mr Magashule, a big obstacle to Mr Ramaphosa’s authority in the ANC, denies wrongdoing. He has declined to step down from his post, setting up a battle in the party over his fate in the coming months.

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Mr Zuma might meanwhile never appear before the inquiry before it is due to finish, Mr Naidoo said. Having already had its life extended, the inquiry is entering its final months, with major parts of the state capture saga still needing to be explored, leaving little time. 

The attempt to make Mr Zuma appear “will be tied up in the courts” and “there is very little likelihood of his coming to testify at all”, Mr Naidoo said.

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