He is almost at the end of his task. His work, one would be inclined to say. In late April, South African judge Raymond Zondo handed President Cyril Ramaphosa the fourth and penultimate volume of his report on the corruption system that ruled South Africa for nearly a decade. For the previous head of state, Jacob Zuma, overwhelming. †
On the run in Dubai, Ajay, Atul and Rajesh, aka “Tony”† Gupta, three brothers of Indian descent, ruled South Africa from the early 2010s until the forced resignation of Jacob Zuma in 2018. † [Jacob] Zuma has diligently opened the doors of public enterprises to the Guptas by inviting them to help themselves with the money and property of the people of South Africa.”writes Judge Zondo.
At the head of the Commission of Inquiry into South Africa’s “capture state”Raymond Zondo over four years heard more than three hundred witnesses tell the story of the “nine lost years” of Jacob Zuma’s tenure. Rail, aviation, prison services, etc.: The first parts of the commission’s report showed how the siblings took control of entire parts of the South African economy before methodically taking them over.
In this new opus, released on April 29, Judge Zondo details the role in particular “central” of Jacob Zuma on Gupta’s takeover of executive power. Tasked with clearing the unruly, “President Zuma could fire someone who was excellent at his job if that person was not willing to cooperate with the Gupta”continues Raymond Zondo.
Nhlanhla Nene, Minister of Finance from May 2014 to December 2015, knows something about this. At the time, this respected high official cared about the state treasury. But balancing the budget is not on the Gupta’s agenda. Nor does it fit Jacob Zuma’s view of public finances. “In other countries of the world, the finance ministers don’t tell the president that there is no more money, their job is to find the money”one day the ex-head of state was annoyed by the director of the treasury.
At the forefront of Mr Nene’s concerns is the catastrophic situation of the flag carrier, South African Airways. Under a board of directors acquired from Guptas, the company’s losses doubled between 2012 and 2014. The company’s financial instability threatens the integrity of public finances. Mr. Nene wants a new board of directors to restore the credibility of the company that can no longer borrow.
At the head of the board, Dudu Myeni is a protege of the Guptas and Jacob Zuma. Mister Nene warned: it is he or she. A few weeks later he is thanked. The departure of the respected Nhlanhla Nene is causing panic in the financial markets. In 48 hours, the rand collapsed and South African bonds lost 10% of their value. An inexperienced deputy, Des van Rooyen, replaces the beloved minister. The day before his appointment, he made a detour to the Guptas. On the day of his arrival at the ministry, Mr. van Rooyen is flanked by two “advisors” some of them are astonished at the authority they seem to have over the new minister. The director of the public treasury also says he was warned by a director of the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party, about skydiving a “minister of the Gupta”†
It goes away after three days. Public service veteran Pravin Gordhan is urgently appointed to reassure the markets. Already passed by the post, he plans to stop the financial mismanagement. It doesn’t take long for trouble to fall on him. In 2016, he was prosecuted as part of an investigation into an alleged “rogue unit” within the IRS when he led it. The press denounces a clique. The folder is empty. This time the manipulation is pschitt.
Police on command
The Guptas had calculated everything. “You have to understand that we have everything under control and the old man will do what he is told to do”, once threatened one of the brothers during a visit to their home by the Secretary of State for Finance. Police, intelligence, tax authorities… In addition to placing their pawns at the top of the state, the Guptas have provided the administrations that can search for lice for them. All that is left for the brothers and their family members, thus protected, is to milk the state out by taking more and more public orders.
How much money has this mafia system stolen from South Africa? In 2021, the co-founder of British NGO Shadow World Investigations, Paul Holden, estimated the sum of fraudulent contracts awarded to companies associated with the Guptas at more than $3.5 billion (€3.3 billion). The real costs go far beyond that. “For example, if we look at what happened in Prasa [la compagnie publique de transport ferroviaire]this may not be the same scale as the diversions at Eskom [société d’électricité publique]but it has impacted millions of people who have lost their jobs because the network no longer works”underlines Hennie van Vuuren, director of OpenSecrets, a South African anti-corruption organization.
And after that ? Judge Zondo has until June 15 to submit the final part of his report. He has already recommended initiating proceedings against more than 130 people, including several former ministers. Elected on the promise of a “new dawn” and often criticized for putting Cyril Ramaphosa under pressure for the gentleness of his fight against corruption. It is that he has to face the factional struggle within his party, some of which have long benefited from this system that some do not want to see disappear.
Interpol red notices
In early March, the president sent a strong signal by appointing Judge Zondo to head the Constitutional Court, making him the country’s first magistrate. “But he can’t just change the systemtempers mister van Vuuren of OpenSecrets. We need an NPA [National Prosecuting Authority (bureau du procureur)] strong and determined to go all the way. For the time being this is not the case. †
On the run in Dubai since the explosion of the scandal in 2016, the Guptas have been the subject of red notices from Interpol. Jacob Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison for refusing to testify before the Zondo Commission in July 2021. He has since been released on parole under controversial circumstances. At the age of 80, already prosecuted for corruption in an arms sales case, he has specialized in escaping justice.