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Former President Jacob Zuma told the state capture inquiry that enemies had plotted to bring him down, and he had never broken the law with the Guptas, the family at the heart of corruption scandals which have rocked South Africa.
A defiant Zuma said he was the victim of a “character assassination” by some agencies, both domestic and foreign, who had tried to get rid of him for more than 20 years.
His appearance at the public inquiry – set up to test allegations whether Zuma and others allowed cronies to plunder state resources and influence government appointments – marked a dramatic fall from grace for the former president.
Zuma, ousted by the governing African National Congress (ANC) in February 2018 and replaced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, maintained he did nothing wrong, adding that there has been a concerted effort by his enemies to entrench what he says is “an anti-Zuma narrative.”
Referring to the Gupta business brothers, Zuma said: “I never did anything with them unlawfully, they just remained friends. Never, never did I discuss any matter that does not belong to them.”
“They were businesspeople and successful businesspeople,” Zuma continued.
“I’m not a businessperson, I know nothing about business, I’m a politician, I know something about politics.”
He added that he, then deputy president, was introduced to the Gupta family by former minister in the presidency Essop Pahad after they (the Guptas) had a meeting with former president Thabo Mbeki.
Under pressure from his own ANC, Zuma, in his final weeks as president, set up the inquiry into state capture he now sits before, as a number of his colleagues, including Ramaphosa, were anxious that the scandals surrounding Zuma could permanently tarnish the reputation of the ANC.
Zuma had avoided establishing the inquiry since a 2016, following a report by former public protector Thuli Madonsela who instructed him to do so in order to investigate allegations that the Gupta brothers had been able to influence ministerial appointments and had won state contracts improperly.
The Gupta family denied the accusations and left South Africa around the time that Zuma was ousted.
Zuma also recalled how current Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula came to him and recounted how business mogul Anton Rupert threatened to annihilate the rand should Zuma fire then finance minister Pravin Gordhan.
A revelation which led netizens to challenge why the media was not reporting on this explosive information.
“I’ve been vilified, alleged to be the king of corrupt people,” Zuma, now 77, said in his opening remarks to the hearing in Johannesburg.
“There has been a drive to remove me from the scene…a conspiracy against me.”
He said he could trace this to the early 1990s, when he received an intelligence report that two foreign intelligence agencies and a branch of the apartheid government that was in power at the time had come up with a strategy to get rid of him.
He did not state where the foreign intelligence agencies came from, only that they were from “big countries.”
“They (my enemies) took a decision that Zuma must be removed from the decision-making structures of the ANC. That’s why the character assassination, that is the beginning of the process that has put me where I am today,” Zuma said.
And in what is perhaps a sign of more explosive things to come, Zuma told the state capture inquiry that “I have been over provoked with people saying things about me because they know I’m not going to revenge.”
“I have been respectful to people, but now that takes a backseat.”
Zuma also detailed a systematic attempt over the years to “assassinate his character,” and affirm what he says is an “anti-Zuma narrative.”
He said that he has has loads of intelligence at his disposal, but that he handles it responsibly.
“Some people know for a fact that I know some things about them… I lived with people who don’ t know I know things about them,” the former president said.
Zuma emphasized: “I have been patient… but I have been provoked to the last degree.”
Asked about Zuma’s comments, ANC spokesman Pule Mabe said, “The ANC is not on trial here.”
‘HANDS OFF ZUMA’
But Zuma still has allies, and a group of several dozen supporters broke into applause and chants of “Zuma” as he entered the hearing room.
Among them, former finance minister Des van Rooyen, former ANC spokesman Carl Niehaus and former North West premier Supra Mahumapelo who were later joined by Ekurhuleni Mayor Mzwandile Masina.
Outside, supporters shouted: “Hands off Zuma!”
Zuma is scheduled to give testimony from Monday to Friday, and his appearance at the public inquiry is a rare example of an African leader being summoned to account soon after being ousted from power.
“Some people forget I was a president,” Zuma said, adding, “I will connect the dots date back to a decade and show why I have found myself here.”
Ominously, Zuma concluded his statement: