South African President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledges there was rampant state corruption while he was deputy to former president Jacob Zuma, but says he did not resign as that would have hampered his efforts to resist the rot.
Ramaphosa was appearing before a judicial panel on Wednesday probing the alleged mass looting of state coffers during Zuma’s 2009 to 2018 presidency.
He served as Zuma’s deputy for four years from May 2014 before succeeding him in February 2018.
“I had five options: resign; speak out; acquiesce and abet; remain and keep silent; or remain and resist,” Ramaphosa said.
But had he quit his job, “This action would have significantly impaired my ability to contribute to bring about an end” to the corruption, he argued.
Ramaphosa said he decided to stay in order to “resist some of the more egregious and obvious abuses of power”.
“With the benefit of hindsight, I am certain that this was the necessary and correct course of action,” he said.
It was Ramaphosa’s second appearance before the panel.
Ramaphosa defeated Zuma’s ex-wife to win the leadership position in the governing African National Congress (ANC) in 2017 then helped engineer Zuma’s removal as president.
Zuma played cat-and-mouse with the commission, answering questions only once in 2019 before walking out, saying he was being treated like a criminal.
This year, the country’s top court ordered Zuma to return but he refused, and was last month handed a 15-month jail term for contempt.
The inquiry is a result of a 2016 investigation by the country’s ombudswoman which found evidence that Zuma allowed the Guptas, a wealthy Indian migrant business family who won lucrative contracts with state companies, undue influence over the government.
The Gupta brothers have repeatedly denied corruption accusations and are now believed to be living in Dubai.
Zuma has denied corruption was prevalent under his administration. He claims the inquiry is politically motivated and has refused to fully cooperate with it.
Ramaphosa came to power three and a half years ago on a promise to fight corruption.
He told the panel that had he chosen to be confrontational under Zuma, he would have risked being fired, and “my ability to effect change would have been greatly constrained, if not brought to an end.”
Since taking office, Ramaphosa said he has taken strides in clearing out corruption through empowering the national prosecution and more recently, having the state’s COVID-19 pandemic funding scrutinised by auditors.
Yet, Ramaphosa has been criticised for being slow to act on corruption scandals that have crept up under his reign.
His recent health minister, Zweli Mkhize, who resigned earlier this month, faces allegations of benefitting himself and his family through a COVID-19-related communications contract.
During his first appearance before the commission in April, Ramaphosa admitted that corruption had taken root within the ruling ANC, which has governed the nation since the end of the apartheid in 1994.
The practice involved some ANC members and leaders, he said.
But on Wednesday, Ramaphosa pledged action, saying things had changed.
“Now, having drawn a line in the sand we are going now to be very serious dealing with corruption,” he told the panel. “You may say why didn’t you do so over a period of so many years but it’s better late than never.”
Ramaphosa’s testimony is scheduled to run through Thursday
The corruption inquiry will make recommendations to prosecutors when it concludes at the end of September.
Attendance at the hearing was limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, although opposition Democratic Alliance party leader John Steenhuisen and Ramaphosa’s wife Tshepo Motsepe were among those in the gallery.