Jacob Zuma, the former president of South Africa, presided over “a scarcely believable picture of rampant corruption” at the country’s most critical state companies, according to the first conclusions of a years-long inquiry into graft under his rule.
An initial report to President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday called for the prosecution of former senior officials and castigated international enablers of the rot such as global management consultant Bain & Co as it detailed the looting of the national airline, the undermining of the revenue service and other instances of corruption under Zuma, who left power in 2018.
The inquiry, headed by South Africa’s deputy chief justice, is reporting back for the first time since it was set up four years ago to investigate claims that the Guptas, a business family, and other private interests plundered public resources with Zuma’s aid.
“The influence [the Guptas] exerted over former president Zuma was considerable,” it concluded, in the first of what will be three reports.
Zuma was jailed last year for defying a summons from the inquiry, sparking South Africa’s worst post-apartheid violence. He is now fighting a return to prison after his early release on medical parole was judged unlawful.
Zuma “fled” the inquiry rather than answer difficult questions on why he kept Dudu Myeni, a close ally, as chair of South African Airways as she brought the once-respected flag-carrier “into a shambolic state”, the report said. “He did not want to account to the nation,” it added.
Ramaphosa on Tuesday welcomed the inquiry’s first report as a “defining moment” for South Africa’s battle against corruption.
But its contents will be highly embarrassing for the governing African National Congress and are being published as faith is flagging in Ramaphosa’s ability to turn round impunity and rot in the state.
Also under fire is Bain & Co, the global consulting group that helped Zuma to undermine and weaken the revenue service as part of the “capture” of the state. Its public contracts in South Africa should be reviewed, the report said.
In a question tabled to the House of Lords on Wednesday, Peter Hain, the Labour peer, called on the UK government to suspend all contracts with Bain over the evidence of its “unlawful” activity in South Africa. Hain, a former anti-apartheid activist, previously led UK regulators to investigate British banking ties to the Guptas in 2017, at the height of the scandal over their influence in South Africa.
“That a multinational company such as Bain would act as a willing and knowing accomplice to corruption by those intent on undermining the South African state and its democracy, is outrageous,” Hain wrote in a letter on Wednesday to Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister.
The report has recommended that several former officials at SAA including Myeni should be investigated for possible fraud. It has also called for Tony Gupta, one of the family brothers, to be probed over alleged bribes in relation to a Gupta-owned newspaper’s receipt of state funds.
Myeni has denied wrongdoing. The Guptas, who left South Africa when Zuma lost power, have always denied wrongdoing.
South Africa has a poor record for prosecutions of political corruption, a reality lamented by the report, and national prosecutors are yet to conclude a major case relating to the state-capture era. Ramaphosa has indicated that he will respond to the inquiry’s recommendations in the middle of the year.
According to the report, when a civil servant resisted the encroachment of the Gupta media empire on the state, “President Zuma was prepared to throw his own comrade in the ANC . . . into the street just because he had refused to be party to a corrupt arrangement sought by the Guptas.”
It added that the rot in the revenue service was also “a clear example of how the private sector colluded with the executive, including president Zuma, to capture an institution that was highly regarded internationally and render it ineffective”.
Bain, which took on a consulting contract at the tax body, met Zuma “before they had even been appointed . . . In reality there was no need for consultants, let alone a radical overhaul of what was then a world-class institution.” The body was instead “deliberately captured”, it said.
The inquiry said Bain’s work with the South African state should be re-examined, and that prosecutions should be considered into the award of its contracts. One key whistleblower “rejected numerous attempts from Bain & Co to give him large sums of money in return for his silence”, it added.
Bain did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In 2018 it returned fees and interest that it had earned on the tax work.
Even at the stage of its first report, the inquiry has called for the overhaul of South Africa’s public procurement rules and the establishment of a dedicated and independent anti-corruption agency.
“South Africa requires an anti-corruption body free from political oversight and able to combat corruption with fresh and concentrated energy,” it said.
The call for a tough new graft-busting agency will be especially stinging for the ANC. The party abolished a similar body, the Scorpions, during Zuma’s rise to power more than a decade ago.