Former South African president Jacob Zuma will on Monday appear for the first time before a judicial inquiry into claims that he helped private interests to loot the state.
Mr Zuma, who was ousted by the ruling African National Congress last year and was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa, has confirmed that he will voluntarily attend hearings in Johannesburg, which are due to run all this week.
He will be questioned on previous testimony to the inquiry by current and former state officials, who alleged that he helped the Guptas, a business family who gained his friendship, to influence policies and ministerial appointments to their advantage.
His appearance promises to be a watershed moment for the biggest corruption scandal in South Africa’s post-apartheid history.
“We will meet there and we will see how it goes,” Mr Zuma, who has always denied wrongdoing, said on Friday.
His lawyers have already clashed with the team of the presiding judge, Raymond Zondo, after they sought prior access to questions. The request was denied. Mr Zuma “will be afforded an opportunity to state his side of the story”, Mr Zondo, South Africa’s deputy chief justice, has said.
Testimony by Mr Zuma could exacerbate infighting in the ANC over Mr Ramaphosa’s pledge to build on the inquiry’s work and eliminate graft linked to the ruling party.
Mr Zuma has said the state capture scandal was an invention by his political foes and has called the inquiry “an extension of factional political narratives”.
As president he established the inquiry after a legal battle when South Africa’s public protector, an independent state ombudsman, ordered it.
It was left to Mr Ramaphosa to pick up the pieces from the alleged “capture” of the state, which is said to have undermined tax collection and the oversight of leading public companies such as Eskom, the power monopoly.
Last year, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, a former minister under Mr Zuma, told the inquiry that his former boss had “auctioned off executive authority” and hollowed out institutions for the profit of the Guptas’ mines-to-media empire.
More recently the inquiry has examined allegations of mismanagement at the national flag carrier, South African Airways, when a friend of Mr Zuma was its chair. Dudu Myeni allegedly flouted procurement rules and used bogus whistleblowers to purge staff. She had denied wrongdoing.
The inquiry has also looked at evidence the former president was involved in setting up a Gupta-controlled broadcaster.
The Guptas, a trio of Indian-born brothers, left South Africa when Mr Zuma was ousted. They deny wrongdoing.
Mr Zuma also faces questions about Bosasa, a contractor that allegedly paid large sums to his charitable foundation in return for political protection.
Angelo Agrizzi, Bosasa’s former chief operating officer, told the inquiry that he counted out money for the payments. The company’s current leadership denies the claims.
Thanks to the inquiry’s near-daily hearings since last August, “ordinary South Africans have a much better understanding of the depths of state capture, how it operated and how processes and institutions were used to loot resources”, Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary for the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, an NGO, said.
Mr Zondo has patiently listened to months of such testimony and dispatched notices to witnesses the inquiry wants to cross-examine. It has subpoena powers, albeit rarely used.
“If Zuma is going to be obstructive, they will have to employ the powers they have . . . the work of the commission will be inadequate [without his answers]”, Mr Naidoo said.
The Zondo inquiry has sometimes been compared to South Africa’s 1990s truth and reconciliation commission, which examined the legacy of apartheid, in terms of its future importance for the country.
But its ultimate test will be whether its revelations are followed up by prosecutions, Mr Naidoo said.
Mr Ramaphosa has backed a special unit within the national prosecuting authority to investigate state-capture crimes. But it has signalled it may require outside support from the private sector and forensic specialists.
The agency has a “massive credibility challenge” after years of decay, Shamila Batohi, its head, said last week.