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The recent past subverts Ramaphosa’s line of plausible denial at Zondo commission

The recent past caught up with President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday as he completed his fourth and final day of testimony at the Zondo commission probing state capture.Faced for two days with well-prepared evidence leaders pulling no punches, Ramaphosa’s claim that he sought to stem state capture while deputy president, and in the past three years as head of state, faltered on three years of evidence to the inquiry and the bloody events of July.

Particularly damning was the concern voiced in January by then acting director general of the State Security Agency (SSA), Loyiso Jafta, that the entity was subverted to cater to the personal and political proclivities of former president Jacob Zuma.

Evidence leader Paul Pretorius harked back to a finer point of Jafta’s testimony that among the losses suffered by the intelligence service was that of firearms, some of which were troublingly never recovered. This became more perturbing because caches of arms were found in flashpoints in last month’s violence, termed a failed insurrection by the government, seemingly fomented in response to Zuma’s arrest.

“There was a lapse, and we now need to investigate that and investigate how it happened and manifested itself, from a certain beginning right up to what happened in July,” Ramaphosa  conceded.

But he fudged the critical issue of what he knew, and when, about the abuses within the intelligence service.

Pretorius made a fine point of it, able to do so because Ramaphopsa has commissioned a report by a high-level panel, headed by former cabinet minister Sydney Mufamadi, into the state of the intelligence services.

When Pretorius pressed the president as to when he became aware of wrongdoing, Ramaphosa replied: “I may not be able to pinpoint the time and date … Precisely part of the reason that motivated me to bring the SSA into the presidency so that we can go much more into the depth of it; so, Mr Pretorius, it is something that is very firmly on my radar screen.”

Last week, Ramaphosa named Zizi Kodwa as minister in the presidency responsible for state security, despite evidence before the commission that he had received payments and luxury accommodation worth more than R2-million while he was the ruling ANC’s spokesperson, apparently in exchange for support on government tenders.

Pretorius did not hone in on Kodwa, but on the continued employment of Arthur Fraser, who served as director general of the SSA under Zuma and, according to testimony in January, signed off on R20-million in payments to influence the media.

Ramaphosa named Fraser as director general of correctional services and, despite evidence that he took an active part in forking out state cash to further Zuma’s private aims, retained the services of David Mahlobo as deputy minister of human settlements, after he served as state security minister in the previous administration.

The president’s response to Pretorius was that he was waiting for the commission chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo to deliver its findings on the individuals in question, to which the evidence leader replied that for senior appointments what mattered more perhaps was a perception of being beyond reproach rather than forensic evidence to the contrary.

Zondo intervened at this point to suggest that waiting for his findings before acting might not be the best approach, because he would bet that people were already drafting papers to take his upcoming report on review.

Pretorius pointed to the termination of Jafta’s contract after his perturbing evidence, which then state security minister Ayanda Dloldo tried to block, and Ramaphosa was left scrambling to deny anything sinister about the fact, along with the release of two secret witnesses from the intelligence community who likewise lifted the veil on the abuses that marked the Zuma era.

“It is something that I would not know closely,” Ramaphosa replied, adding that Jafta’s removal was most likely a case of regulations barring him from another acting stint.

Pretorius countered: “This is not an observation that accords with our view from our investigation.”

The particular exchange on the intelligence community seemed lethal to Ramaphosa’s repeated attempts to draw a line under the past, and position himself at a plain remove from the abuses of the Zuma administration.

He claimed on Wednesday that he made the calculation to serve as deputy president at the height of state capture as a means of fighting a corrupt administration from the inside.

But this faltered during the course of the day, and further on Thursday.

Evidence leader Anton Myburgh on Thursday asked how everyone, including Ramaphosa, missed it that Brian Molefe frequented the Saxonwold home of the Guptas at the centre of state capture, while overseeing a Transnet contract to buy 1 064 locomotives that contributed to a total of R57-billion flowing to the brothers’ money-laundering interests.

“I just want to ask you this, Mr President: For those people, how is it possible this happened in the light of day? It was co-ordinated literally a few kilometres up the road,” Myburgh said.

“How is it possible that no one in a position of power that was not complicit identified this and raised the red flag? How is it conceivable? It is impossible.” 

Ramaphosa replied: “Chairperson, it is possible and conceivable.” 

Those involved in corruption cunningly enlisted protection at the top, he said, adding that the government would henceforth be careful to appoint people of integrity.

“So what we have been through is a good lesson of what not to do. The fundamental reality is that certain individuals made a deliberate decision to engage in acts of corruption,” the president said, allowing that a large proportion, “even perhaps a majority of the governing party” was complicit.

Some, he said, were fence-sitters, adding: “The worst thing we can do is to allow it to happen again.”

But, ultimately, he said, those on the inside chose their battles and “got engaged silently to bring about the change that we are today seeing”.

He described the Zondo commission as a watershed moment in the country’s history and his willingness to testify as unusual.

“The establishment of a commission was a crossroads for us. I hold the belief that if we did not establish a commission we would have continued to waddle in a situation where corruption continued unabated in the dark,” said Ramaphosa. But if the commission marked a “watershed moment” in local history, it would “take some time” to recover from state capture.

For his part, Zondo stressed that his preoccupation was to ensure that systems were put in place to prevent a repeat of the scandal that, according to testimony, saw R57-billion siphoned off to the Gupta family.

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