S.Africa's Zuma fights back over new graft scandal

17th March 2016, Comments 0 comments

South African President Jacob Zuma on Thursday brushed off allegations about a wealthy family's influence over ministerial appointments as he defended himself in parliament in a worsening corruption scandal.

The latest graft claims to hit the president erupted after deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas said he was offered the top job in the treasury by the Guptas, an Indian family said to hold huge sway over Zuma.

Mmusi Maimane, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party, brought up Jonas's allegations in parliament and asked Zuma "whether the Gupta family has ever offered anybody a cabinet position".

After delivering his trademark chuckle, Zuma replied: "Don't ask me. Where do I come in? I had no business with that."

Zuma said only he had the power to appoint and fire ministers and "there is no minister here who has ever been appointed by the Guptas or anyone else."

When Maimane accused Zuma of failing to answer follow-up questions, he was ordered to leave the house, and the rest of the DA lawmakers walked out in solidarity.

The radical Economic Freedom Fighters, who have regularly disrupted previous parliamentary appearances by Zuma, boycotted the session, saying they no longer recognised him as president.

The Gupta brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh have built up a string of companies with interests in computers, mining, media and engineering since moving to South Africa in the 1990s.

They have long been accused of wielding undue influence over Zuma, whose son Duduzane is a partner in some of their businesses. Zuma's third wife also used to work for them.

In his statement on Wednesday, Jonas said: "Members of the Gupta family offered me the position of Minister of Finance to replace then-minister Nene. I rejected this out of hand."

The Guptas, who attracted controversy a few years ago by flying in wedding guests at the Waterkloof air base which is reserved for visiting heads of state and diplomats, issued a statement denying Jonas's claims.

- 'A mafia state'? -

But even the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has expressed concern about the graft allegations, amid speculation that the president's position at the head of the party could be fatally weakened.

"We need to deal with this; it will degenerate into a mafia state if this goes on," ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe told Bloomberg News.

"The fact we are talking about this so boldly now shows that things are going to change."

The ANC, which led the struggle to end apartheid, holds a three-day meeting of its national executive committee starting on Friday, where the Gupta issue is likely to dominate.

The DA said that the latest developments made Zuma's position "increasingly untenable".

"He, and the ANC, need to consider whether he should resign from office, or be recalled," it said.

The alleged job offer to Jonas occurred before Zuma sacked respected finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in December -- a move that triggered a collapse in the rand and massive withdrawal of foreign investment.

Nene was replaced by little-known lawmaker David van Rooyen, who was widely seen as a weak placeman for Zuma loyalists such as the Guptas.

The appointment of Van Rooyen caused such a negative reaction that Zuma sacked him after just four days and reappointed Pravin Gordhan, who served as finance minister from 2009 to 2014.

Gordhan is leading efforts to try to restore confidence in the economy and avoid a downgrade of the country's debt to junk status by the ratings agencies -- a task made more difficult by the Gupta scandal.

Zuma, a veteran political survivor whose term in office ends in 2019, has previously defended his friendship with the Guptas.

© 2016 AFP

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