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South African Ex-President Zuma Testimony at Corruption Probe Raises More Questions

Former South African president Jacob Zuma, center, arrives to testify before a state commission probing wide-ranging allegations of corruption in government and state-owned companies, in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 17, 2019.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma has spent three days testifying at a corruption inquiry that looks into numerous allegations of cronyism and undue influence on state organs during his time in office. But observers wonder whether Zuma is bringing answers to light, or just raising more questions.

South Africa has yet to hear many actual answers from Zuma on how private interests allegedly influenced government decisions for years, leading to dubious high-level appointments.

But what Zuma has provided this week during his testimony at the so-called “State Capture” commission holds plenty of drama. In three days of near-constant talking, the former leader, whose party pressured him to resign last year, has alleged that some top politicians are spies, complained the inquiry is unfair, and said his life is now at risk.

"I just thought, for record, this commission must know that my life and my children, my lawyers, are now under threat," he said Tuesday, on the second day of his testimony in Johannesburg.

The Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector has now gone on for more than a year, and seen dozens of witnesses.

Former South African president Jacob Zuma leafs through documents as he testifies before a state commission probing wide-ranging allegations of corruption in government and state-owned companies, in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 17, 2019.

At the center of this drama is a wealthy family, the Guptas. The Gupta family is said to have been so close to Zuma that several top politicians testified that the family offered them high-level Cabinet positions in exchange for beneficial commercial decisions.

The highest-profile Gupta family member fled South Africa shortly after Zuma resigned, and this week, Zuma’s lawyer, Thabani Masuku, has argued that the family’s absence is a problem.

"It’s highly unfair. If the Guptas are not going to be here to testify and to corroborate what Mr. Maseko has said here, it's just unfair to ask the president to recall or to interpret what role he may have played in the removal of Mr. Maseko," Masuku said.

The lawyer was referring to Themba Maseko, who left his job as a government communications spokesman in 2011 and recently testified on Zuma's close ties to the Gupta family. Maseko was replaced after refusing to direct government-advertising contracts to the Guptas' now-defunct media businesses.

Corruption was a central issue during this year’s election, and President Cyril Ramaphosa won re-election on an anti-corruption platform.

Under Zuma, the nation saw numerous fruitless anti-corruption inquiries. But Ronald Chauke of Organization Undoing Tax Abuse, a South African watchdog, says he hopes things will be different this time, because Ramaphosa has said he will allow the commissions to do their work.

Chauke also questions the testimony Zuma has offered this week.

“To be honest with you, he was falling short. Basically, it shows you that it's like, all of a sudden, he remembers things that happened [in] the 1960s, 40, 50 years ago. But when he has to remember critical things that recently happened in the last three years or four years, he tends to say that he doesn’t remember, he doesn’t recall. So basically, it is convenient amnesia which for me actually is deliberate lying and a deliberate withholding of critical information.”

Zuma is set to testify for one more day, on Friday.

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