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S.Africa’s Zuma seeks ‘impartial’ judge in anti-graft hearings

After months of refusing to testify, South Africa’s ex-president Jacob Zuma appeared Monday before a panel probing rampant state corruption during his nine-year reign, demanding a fair investigation.

The 78-year-old did not give any evidence on the graft allegations. Instead he accused Raymond Zondo, the head of the judicial commission, of bias and lodged an application requesting that he recuse himself.

The scandal-tainted former leader had indicated in September that he would ask Zondo, deputy chief justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, to step aside.

Lawyer Muzi Sikhakhane said Zuma’s “reasonable apprehension” stems from comments made by Zondo during testimony given by previous witnesses in the probe.

Zuma “is entitled to an impartial” judge, the lawyer said, adding that Zondo had an intimidating style of questioning.

“This is not about your integrity,” Sikhakhane told Zondo, adding however: “Your comments… have raised concerns” that the commission “seeks to punish him (Zuma)”.

The lawyer warned that if Zuma is forced to answer questions “without the climate being created for him to believe that he is not being judged… he’ll exercise his right to say nothing”.

Counsel for the commission, Paul Pretorius, dismissed Zuma’s application as “simply without merit”.

Zondo said he would respond to the demand “as soon as possible”.

The country’s second highest-ranking judge has headed the so-called Zondo Commission since it was set up in 2018 to hear testimony from ministers, ex-ministers, government officials and business executives on alleged corruption under Zuma’s tenure.

So far at least 34 witnesses have directly or indirectly implicated Zuma.

He is suspected of having facilitated widespread looting of state resources during his 2009-18 presidency when lucrative government contracts were awarded to an Indian business family, the Guptas, among other scandals.

The ruling African National Congress forced Zuma to step down in 2018, and his successor Cyril Ramaphosa has vowed to tackle corruption.

After a first and only appearance before the commission in July 2019, Zuma has on several occasions refused to testify, citing health concerns or his preparation for another corruption case.

The former leader is also facing accusations of taking bribes from French arms manufacturer Thales in a case that is more than 20 years old.