South African investigators on Tuesday handed over the first instalment of a long-awaited report into corruption at the heart of the state under former president Jacob Zuma.
The fruit of four years’ work, the report was handed to Zuma’s successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has vowed to root out graft and financial sleaze.
“This is what I would call a defining moment in our country’s effort to definitively end the era of state capture and to restore the integrity… of our institutions and more importantly our government,” Ramaphosa said.
The findings, he hoped, would “mark a decisive break with the corrupt practices that our country has experienced in the past.”
Ramaphosa said he would brief parliament by the end of June on his response to the report, drawn up by a top-level commission that does not itself have powers of prosecution.
Zuma, 79, became post-apartheid South Africa’s fourth president in May 2009, succeeding Thabo Mbeki.
But his presidency became stained by a reputation for corruption, with cronies influencing government appointments, contracts, and state businesses.
The web-like process, known in South Africa as “state capture,” led to losses that at the time were equivalent to nearly seven billion dollars, according to a past estimate by Pravin Gordhan, a former finance minister given responsibility for state companies.
As the outcry mounted, Zuma was pressed into establishing an investigative commission under Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, before he was forced out of office in February 2018 by the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
“It’s been a gruelling four years,” Zondo said on Tuesday as he physically handed the weighty volume to Ramaphosa at a ceremony in Pretoria.
The second volume will be handed to Ramaphosa at the end of January, and the third and final tome at the end of February, according to the presidency.
The first instalment deals with corruption at South African Airways, the New Age newspaper, the country’s tax collector, and the issue of public procurement, Zondo said.
Over 34 months, his commission heard accounts of rampant misappropriation of funds from some of the 270 witnesses, who included business people, civil servants, and intelligence officers.
Much of the evidence to the commission related to a wealthy Indian immigrant family headed by three brothers — Ajay, Atul, and Rajesh Gupta — who are accused of having wielded undue influence over Zuma.
The brothers are at the centre of claims they paid bribes to influence ministerial appointments and plunder state bodies.
They fled South Africa shortly after the commission started its work, and their whereabouts are unknown.
Paul Holden, an investigator who runs an NGO alongside a former ANC MP, told Zondo the estimated cost of the Guptas’ illicit activities could have been as much as 50 billion rands ($3.12 billion, 2.76 billion euros).
One witness described bags bulging with cash being delivered to ANC grandees during secret meetings in upmarket hotels in exchange for lucrative contracts for one private company.
Several witnesses detailed an audit for a major asbestos roof removal project in central Free State province. The project was never completed, yet $10 million went missing.
This led to the indictment and suspension of ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, the provincial premier at the time.
Zuma repeatedly refused to testify to the commission and in July was jailed for contempt of court.
Despite the corrupt reputation of his presidency, Zuma remains popular among many grassroots ANC members.
His imprisonment sparked violent protests that devolved into rioting and looting in his home region, KwaZulu-Natal, and spread to the financial hub Johannesburg.
In a separate case, Zuma is facing 16 charges of fraud, graft, and racketeering relating to a 1999 purchase of military equipment from five European arms companies when he was deputy president.
The report’s handover comes as the political system reels from the fire which destroyed swathes of the parliament in Cape Town after it caught ablaze on Sunday, the day that Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s funeral was held in the city.
The fire has been contained and a man was due in court on Tuesday charged with arson.