South African official says family offered him cabinet post

AP News
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Posted: Mar 16, 2016 3:15 PM

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A senior South African government official said on Wednesday that a wealthy family close to President Jacob Zuma offered him a Cabinet position, a revelation that added to mounting corruption allegations against the president.

Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas said that members of the Gupta family, which has extensive business interests in South Africa, asked him to replace Nhlanhla Nene, who was sacked in December in a move that rattled markets and raised questions about Zuma's leadership.

Jonas said he rejected the offer from the Guptas.

"The basis of my rejection of their offer is that it makes a mockery of our hard earned democracy, the trust of our people and no one apart from the president of the republic appoints ministers," Jonas said in a statement.

Zuma is scheduled to answer questions from members of parliament on Thursday, where opposition parties say they will seek clarity on the political influence of the Gupta family.

The Guptas, a wealthy immigrant Indian family, have come under scrutiny from the South African media and opposition parties who say the family enjoys an unethical relationship with Zuma and the ruling African National Congress. The president's son, Duduzane Zuma, has become a successful businessman while working for Oakbay Investments, the family's company.

The family strongly denied the deputy minister's claim, dismissing it as infighting between rival factions of the ruling party.

"Any suggestion that the Gupta family or any of our representatives or associates have offered anyone a job in government is totally false," the family said in a statement, challenging Jonas to repeat his statement under oath in court.

Jonas' revelation followed a front page report by the Sunday Times, a South African newspaper, alleging that two brothers, Atul and Ajay Gupta, along with Zuma's son, offered Jonas the post of finance minister before Nene was fired.

A growing concern around "state capture" should not be ignored, the deputy finance minister said.

State capture, "is a grand form of corruption where individuals try to steer the policy of a country to their own advantage," said Judith February, a South African political analyst.

If true, Jonas' statement shows that Zuma abdicated his constitutional responsibility, said February, a senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies.

"It does seem to leave President Zuma rather weak and isolated," she said, adding that Zuma's power began to erode when he shuffled finance ministers in December last year.

Zuma removed Nene, replacing him with a relatively unknown legislator, but the public outcry and negative financial reaction brought Zuma to quickly replace him with Pravin Gordhan, who had held the post from 2009 to 2014. Gordhan's return to the finance ministry brought some economic reprieve, but South Africa's currency has again weakened amid a public dispute between Gordhan and police investigators.

"There are many parts of transacting between government and business, which have gone seriously wrong and, if we don't stop this, we're going to become a kleptocracy," Gordhan told journalists at a briefing in February. "There is far too much corruption. There are too many extractors."

A senior member of the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, said the party will press criminal charges against the Guptas related to corruption, following the deputy minister's disclosure.

Earlier this week, Vytjie Mentor, a former ruling party parliamentarian, said the Guptas had previously offered her the post of minister of public enterprises, the department that handles South Africa's national electricity supplier, railway service and national airline carrier. In a Facebook comment, Mentor said she was offered the post provided that she drop the South African Airways route to India. Zuma's office has denied this.

In a string of front-page scandals, the Guptas have been accused using their influence over the president to secure lucrative deals for their private businesses, ranging from computer technology to uranium mining. One of the most contentious public scandals was when the family was allowed to use the Waterkloof Air Force Base, an airport reserved for presidents and dignitaries, to welcome relatives attending a wedding in 2013.

The Guptas have been entrepreneurs in South Africa since they immigrated to the country in 1993, said Nazeem Howa, CEO of Oakbay Investments, the family's company.

"Under one percent is government-related business so it's a complete myth that we actually have government business as the main thing," Howa said in an earlier interview with the Associated Press, adding that industry regulators have found no wrongdoing on the part of the family. "If we've done something wrong, charge us."

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Follow Lynsey Chutel on Twitter at www.twitter.com/lynseychutel.