South African watchdog to question Zuma in Gupta inquiry

President Jacob Zuma speaks during his question and answer session in Parliament in Cape Town

By Joe Brock

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa’s public protector will question President Jacob Zuma on Thursday over allegations he was influenced by the wealthy Gupta family in making government appointments.

The Gupta family became household names in South Africa after Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas said they offered to secure him his boss’s job.

Zuma says the Guptas are his friends but denies they have influenced political appointments.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, having already quizzed Ajay Gupta for four hours on Tuesday, said she would meet with Zuma on Thursday, she told 702 Talk Radio.

Madonsela said the interview will be on allegations that Zuma allowed the Gupta family to play a role in the selection and appointment of ministers of board members of state-owned enterprises.

She said she will also ask about the allegation that Zuma either enabled or turned a blind eye to the Gupta family using the relationship with him to gain favors in terms of tenders, payments and licenses.

Madonsela had earlier told Business Day newspaper in an interview published on Wednesday that: “We will hear his version of events and he may have information for us that we will need to consider against our own findings.”

Presidency spokesman Bongani Majola confirmed the meeting would take place, Business Day said. Majola did not respond to a request for comment.

Zuma has come under criticism in recent months from opponents and members of his own African National Congress (ANC) party over a series of corruption scandals.

The chairman of AngloGold Ashanti, Sipho Pityana, on Wednesday became the latest business leader to call for Zuma to resign, calling him the “sponsor in chief” of corruption.

“Zuma must go,” Sipho Pityana said to a round of applause from delegates at a mining conference. “We must seize the moment and save South Africa.”

Some members of the ANC have also called for a change of leadership in recent weeks as internal divisions widened following the party’s worst ever local election results in August.

Zuma still has the backing of the top echelons of the ANC and millions of diehard supporters in rural regions.

Markets have been spooked by allegations Zuma is locked in a power struggle with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan over, among other things, the issuing of government tenders to the Gupta family and its influence over the ANC.

The Guptas, who moved to South Africa from India after apartheid fell in 1994, run businesses ranging from uranium and coal mining to media and information technology.

Madonsela has already interviewed Gordhan, his predecessor, Nhlanhla Nene, and Jonas. She will interview at least 20 other top officials and members of Zuma’s cabinet, according to local media. Her report should be released by Oct. 14, her chief of staff told Reuters.

Madonsela, whose term as public protector ends this month, previously received public support in South Africa for taking Zuma to task over the spending of 240 million rand ($17 million) of state money on upgrading his private home.

She was vindicated in March when South Africa’s highest court said Zuma had breached the constitution by ignoring her recommendation that he repay some money that was spent on non-security upgrades.

Zuma has since handed back some of the funds.

(Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Toby Chopra)