JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – A South African judge adjourned until Friday morning a public inquiry into state corruption, after lawyers for former President Jacob Zuma said he was being questioned unfairly.
The inquiry is looking into allegations that Zuma, ousted by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party in February 2018, allowed cronies to plunder state resources and influence senior appointments during his nine years in power.
Zuma’s lawyers have argued that the inquiry’s lawyers should not cross-examine the former president because they say evidence given by other witnesses does not directly implicate Zuma in corruption and fraud.
“Chair I hear you, and I appreciate what you’re saying, but I’m really being cross-examined very thoroughly on the details. And I don’t know how come,” Zuma told the chairman of the inquiry, deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo.
Zuma, 77, has long denied any wrongdoing.
Zuma’s lawyers told Zondo that the former president, who has been testifying since Monday, had been brought to the inquiry under “false pretences” because he was being cross-examined, whereas he thought he would only have to answer straightforward points of clarity.
“The former president has expressed certain concerns,” Zondo said. “It has been decided that we should adjourn the proceedings for the day, and we should not sit tomorrow in order to give a full opportunity to the commission’s legal team and the former president’s legal team … to see whether a way can be found in which his (Zuma’s) concerns are addressed.”
Zuma has so far ducked and dived at the inquiry, which he agreed to set up during his final weeks in office.
On Tuesday he said he could not recall details surrounding an incident where his business friends the Guptas allegedly offered a former lawmaker a ministerial position.
On Monday the former president, who still enjoys significant support in rural areas and his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, said he was the victim of a decades-old plot by enemies at home and abroad to get rid of him.
Analysts says efforts by Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, to clean up politics could be hurt if the inquiry fails to pin down a case against Zuma.
Earlier on Wednesday, Zuma denied having interfered with the appointment of a chief executive at transport and infrastructure company Transnet.
Transnet, which operates railways, ports and fuel pipelines, is one of a handful of state-owned firms that became embroiled in corruption scandals during Zuma’s tenure.
Former public enterprises minister Barbara Hogan told the inquiry that Zuma had told her at a meeting in 2009 that Siyabonga Gama was his “only choice” to be CEO of Transnet.
Gama was at the time subject to disciplinary proceedings because of procurement irregularities, and Hogan said Transnet’s board of directors wanted to appoint another candidate it deemed better qualified for the job.
Asked whether he had told Hogan that Gama was his only choice for Transnet CEO, Zuma told the inquiry: “It couldn’t be like that, we don’t work like that. As I say there was a process. … I would have been undermining the process.”
Gama eventually became Transnet CEO in 2015 and was involved in allegedly corrupt contracts worth tens of billions of rands to procure locomotives.
Gama, who was fired last year after trying unsuccessfully to halt his removal, was not available for comment. He has denied the allegations against him.
A Gupta-linked firm earned huge consulting fees from Transnet while Gama was in charge.
The Guptas, who left South Africa around the time Zuma was ousted, have consistently denied having looted state firms like Transnet.
Transnet has sought to recover via the courts money it says was misspent under Gama’s leadership.
State prosecutors have said they are following the corruption inquiry and they could open cases if sufficient evidence of wrongdoing emerges.
Reporting by Alexander Winning; Editing by Frances Kerry