Jacob Zuma, the former president of South Africa, has told an inquiry into corruption allegations that he has been the victim of a “character assassination” campaign by enemies seeking his removal from power.
Zuma, who resigned last year following an internal battle at the ruling African National Congress (ANC), appeared before a state commission on Monday to respond to allegations that he allowed cronies to plunder state resources and influence senior government appointments during his nine years in office.
He has consistently denied wrongdoing, saying the allegations against him are politically motivated.
In his opening remarks, which were televised, Zuma said he had been “vilified” and subjected to “character assassination” as part of a conspiracy by opponents seeking his downfall.
“This commission, from my understanding, was really created to have me coming here, and perhaps to find things on me,” Zuma said. “There has been a drive to remove me from the scene, a wish that I should disappear.”
Zuma, who was not legally required to appear before the commission, struck a relaxed tone ahead of his appearance, which could last for up to five days. He tweeted a video on Sunday of himself dancing and singing “Zuma must fall” before laughing heartily.
The commission, led by Judge Raymond Zondo, said last month that Zuma was invited to appear “to enable him to give his side of the story”. It is investigating a web of deals involving government officials, the wealthy Gupta family and state-owned companies.
Speaking at the start of Monday’s hearing, Zondo thanked Zuma for attending, and said: “The commission is not mandated to prove any case against anybody but is mandated to investigate and inquire into certain allegations.”
Al Jazeera’s Haru Mutasa, reporting from Johannesburg, said Zuma sounded angry and defiant during his first day, claiming people have been spying on him and tried poisoning him because he knows too much from his days in the intelligence agencies.
Zuma, 77, set up the corruption inquiry in his final weeks in the office under pressure from rivals in the ANC, including his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, who feared scandals surrounding the then-president could tarnish the party’s reputation indelibly.
He had avoided establishing the inquiry since a 2016 report by the country’s anti-corruption watchdog, the public protector, instructed him to do so to investigate allegations that the Gupta family had been able to influence ministerial appointments and had won state contracts improperly.
Several witnesses who have appeared before the commission have directly linked Zuma to the corruption allegations, including former cabinet ministers who claim to have been offered cabinet appointments by the Guptas.
“He said that he does know the very wealthy Gupta family and that he talks to them but that no laws have been broken,” Mutasa said.
“He denied allegations that the Guptas were allowed to interfere with government policy, challenging people and asking them ‘where is the proof’,” she added.
“He also told the commission that the Guptas have been in and out of Africa for many years and that they had business dealings with many senior people in the ANC, wondering why he was seemingly the only one being summoned.”
A former cabinet spokesman, Themba Maseko, also alleged that Zuma had personally attempted to influence the awarding of significant government advertising contracts to the Guptas’ now-defunct media businesses.
Some of these corruption allegations extend to the country’s tax collection agency and the national prosecuting authority.
“There is great public interest in seeing Zuma being held to account for his suspected role in state corruption,” Mutasa said.
“If he does testify, he could implicate other officials. He has argued that some people have used his name in the past to further their own interests. South Africa is going to watch very closely if he names these officials and what would be the way forward after that.”
The Gupta brothers, who are close business friends of Zuma, have denied all allegations of corruption and left the country shortly after the former president’s resignation.
Since his departure from office, Zuma has been in court on several occasions to answer corruption charges linked to a deal to buy military hardware for the armed forces in the 1990s.
In that case, Zuma is accused of committing 16 counts of fraud, racketeering and money laundering relating to a multibillion-dollar arms contract involving military hardware supplied by French defence company Thales to South Africa’s armed forces.
“Zuma tends to view processes of justice and government, such as when he was called before parliament and the courts, … as being beneath him in a very patronising and paternalistic way,” said Ayesha Kajee, a South African political analyst.
Earlier this year, the ANC won re-election, scooping 57.5 percent of the vote to guarantee a sixth straight term in power. That result, however, was the worst since the party came into power after the end of apartheid 25 years ago.
South Africa’s economy, the second-largest on the continent, grew just 0.8 percent in 2018. Overall unemployment, meanwhile, hovers at around 27 percent, with more than 50 percent of young people out of work.