Watchdog’s report recommends an investigation into allegations that family linked with South African president tried to influence cabinet post selections
Jason Burke in Johannesburg
Last modified on Wednesday 2 November 2016 16.30 GMT
A long-awaited report by a government anti-graft watchdog has raised “serious concerns” that Jacob Zuma, the South African president, allowed a family of tycoons to influence the selection of senior cabinet ministers to benefit its own business interests.
The 355-page document was released on Wednesday after lawyers for Zuma withdrew an application to block its publication during a hearing in Pretoria, the administrative capital. The publication of the report may prompt the biggest crisis of Zuma’s presidency, and throw South Africa into a new period of intense political instability.
Some analysts believe that the veteran politician and anti-apartheid activist can hang on to power at least until his current term as leader of the ruling African National Congress party ends next year. Others suggest Zuma, who has been hit by a series of scandals, is enjoying his “final days in power”.
The release of the report came as police fired stun grenades and water cannon to disperse thousands of protesters who marched towards Zuma’s offices in Pretoria on Wednesday, demanding his resignation.
It focuses on Zuma’s close relationship with billionaire brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta, who run businesses ranging from media to mining. Zuma has denied giving the Gupta’s any undue influence and they have denied seeking it.
The report details seven visits by one junior parliamentarian to the Gupta family’s sprawling home in Johannesburg’s exclusive Saxonwold district in the days before his appointment as finance minister by Zuma in December last year. The lawmaker and the Guptas have denied all wrongdoing.
The report also details scores of calls and visits linking the Guptas and the chief executive of South Africa’s state-owned power company.
It also describes “a business partnership between the family and Zuma’s son” and recommends that a commission of inquiry headed by a judge be set up within 30 days to investigate the alleged influence-peddling in government.
The scandal is the latest to have enveloped Zuma, who took power in 2009.
The 74-year-old apologised earlier this year after the constitutional court said he flouted the constitution in a scandal over more than £13.7m in state funds used to upgrade his rural home. He eventually paid back 7.8m rand (£474,268), an amount determined by the national treasury.
Earlier this week, the director of the National Prosecuting Authority dropped fraud charges against the finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, following an outcry among South Africans who saw the prosecution as an attempt by Zuma loyalists to take control of the treasury to allow access to lucrative government contracts.
The report is the final salvo from Thuli Madonsela, South Africa’s hugely popular former public ombudsman. Madonsela left the office of public protector at the end of her seven-year term last month as one of the country’s most respected public figures. The former activist and advocate had hoped to release the report on her last day in office on 14 October but Zuma obtained a high court block on publication.
Madonsela’s successor, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, had not moved to publish the report, prompting concerns that she would be less aggressive in her investigations of public wrongdoing than her predecessor.
Zuma has faced criticism from all sides in recent weeks, including from within his own party and the powerful labour movement. Several senior ANC officials attended a rally against Zuma on Wednesday, apparently cementing a bitter factional battle within the party between the president’s loyalists and so-called “reformers”.
The rally, in a cathedral in Pretoria, was led by a campaign group called Save South Africa, described by one local newspaper as “a who’s who of [anti-apartheid] struggle stalwarts‚ religious leaders‚ business people and civic activists”.
Sipho Pityana, chairman of AngloGold Ashanti, a major gold producer, and a leader of the group, told reporters in Pretoria before the march that South Africans had “to come to terms with the fact that for as long as we have President Zuma as president of the country, it is not possible to turn the situation around”.
Earlier this week, the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union, which has 235,000 members, called on the president to resign.
“While we believe that no single individual … can be solely responsible for all the … ills in our society and while we appreciate that Comrade Jacob Zuma has served our struggle well over the years‚ the organised working class cannot stand idly by … when it is clear that the revolution is taking a disastrous trajectory‚” the union said in a statement.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation, founded by the revered late president and anti-apartheid leader, has also sharply criticised Zuma, saying that “political meddling for private interests” during his tenure has weakened state institutions.
“It is painful for us … to bear witness to the wheels coming off the vehicle of our state,” a statement said.
The foundation was seen as significant as it has traditionally avoided making political statements and has instead focused on themes such as justice and equality, as well as the legacy of racism dating from South Africa’s era of white minority rule, which ended in 1994 when Mandela became the country’s first black president.
Some of the country’s best known political cartoonists have also called for Zuma to step down, even though it would mean losing one of their “richest sources of material”.
Separate rallies were also held in Pretoria by South Africa’s two biggest opposition parties, the centre-right Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters.
South Africa’s economy has flagged in recent years, while crime rates have risen and deep problems of poverty remain unresolved. The country has recently been hit by often violent student demonstrations over the cost of university education.
Zuma still holds many cards, however. Much of the union movement remains loyal, the ANC’s executive committee is dominated by his supporters and there is still grassroots support for his presidency, especially in rural areas.
However, the party, which took power after the end of apartheid, lost several key municipalities in local elections in August.
Internal polls revealed that dissatisfaction with Zuma was only a minor factor for voters, with the ANC’s failure to deliver high-quality services such as water, schools, power and housing playing a greater role.
The next national elections are due in 2019. Party strategists have been warned by outside experts that the ANC’s popularity is eroding fast.
Zuma has not commented this week on growing calls for his departure. He is scheduled to chair a forum in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, on Thursday with the former British colony’s veteran president, Robert Mugabe.
– The Guardian