South Africa watchdog report increases pressure on president

AP News
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Posted: Nov 02, 2016 12:59 PM
South Africa watchdog report increases pressure on president

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South African President Jacob Zuma faced growing calls to resign on Wednesday after the release of a state report that found possible evidence of corruption at top levels of a government whose leader has been enmeshed in scandal.

The report by a state watchdog agency came out as thousands of South Africans demonstrated for the removal of Zuma, who apologized earlier this year after the Constitutional Court said he flouted the law in a scandal over millions of dollars in state spending on his rural home.

A commission of inquiry should be established to investigate separate allegations centered on Zuma's close relationship with the Guptas, a business family of Indian immigrants that has been accused of meddling in the government for its own financial benefit, according to the report by the state public protector's office.

Zuma is required to appoint the judicial commission, though it would be "headed by a judge solely selected by the Chief Justice who shall provide one name to the President," the report said.

The commission would have six months to complete its findings and make recommendations, a process that could slow calls for Zuma to quit. Opposition parties, however, said they could push for a vote of no confidence in the president in coming weeks.

A similar vote earlier this year was rejected because the ruling African National Congress has a majority in parliament, though some ANC members have since become openly critical of Zuma. The president still has the support of some powerful factions in his party.

The release of the 355-page report by former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, who completed a seven-year term last month, was delayed in court because of efforts by Zuma and associates to block its release.

The president "was not afforded a reasonable opportunity to provide meaningful input into the investigation and asked the court to be given an opportunity to do so," Zuma's office said in a statement. It said he should have been provided with "incriminating evidence" before answering questions from the watchdog agency, and should have been allowed to question witnesses who were interviewed for the report.

"The President will give consideration to the contents of the report in order to ascertain whether it should be a subject of a court challenge," Zuma's office said.

The report explores conduct by Zuma and other state officials in connection with allegations that the Guptas were involved in the removal and appointment of Cabinet ministers and directors of state-owned firms.

The Guptas have denied they illegally tried to obtain state contracts and other benefits, and previously said they were the victims of hate speech.

A key allegation centers on Zuma's decision in December to abruptly fire Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and replace him with a relatively unknown figure, David van Rooyen. The move unsettled markets and prompted a national outcry, compelling the president to replace van Rooyen a few days later with Pravin Gordhan, who previously served as finance minister.

Allegations that the Gupta family knew that Nene was going to be fired, as well as evidence that van Rooyen was at the Gupta home in Johannesburg at least seven times before his appointment as finance minister, are worrying, according to the public protector's report.

It also cited allegations by the deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, that a Gupta brother had offered him the finance minister's post while saying Zuma was aware of the offer. The president denied knowledge of any such offer.

"Consequently the people of South Africa, who Deputy Minister Jonas took into his confidence in revealing this, would lose faith in open, democratic and accountable government if President Zuma's denials are proven to be false," said the report, noting that the executive branch should have investigated Jonas' allegations.

Jonas alleged that the Gupta brother he met offered him $44 million "to be deposited in an account of his choice" and asked if Jonas "had a bag which he could use to receive and carry R600,000 ($44,000) in cash immediately," according to the report. It said Jonas declined the offer.

On Wednesday, business executives, religious leaders and others gathered in a Pretoria cathedral to demand that Zuma quit. They said alleged corruption linked to the president was undermining one of Africa's biggest economies, which is experiencing weak growth, as well as a constitution that was crafted after the end of white minority rule in 1994.

Separate rallies were also held in Pretoria by opposition groups. The marches were mostly peaceful, but some shop windows were smashed and police arrested several people.

Later, members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, an opposition party, marched to the Union Buildings, which house the offices of Zuma and other government officials. There, protesters briefly clashed with police, who set off stun grenades and fired rubber bullets.

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Follow Christopher Torchia on Twitter at www.twitter.com/torchiachris