Jacob Zuma, former South African president, arrives following a recess in the corruption inquiry in Johannesburg on July 15, 2019. (Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg)

Former South African president Jacob Zuma, who resigned amid corruption allegations last year, dismissed allegations Monday that he had enriched himself and his allies using billions of dollars in state funds, calling the charges a “conspiracy” during his first appearance before an investigating commission.

Zuma, 77, denied allegations that he had allowed wealthy business executives to control government appointments and gain access to state coffers. He described the accusations as being part of a decades-long smear campaign to tank his political career.

“I’ve been vilified, alleged to be the king of corrupt people,” he said during his testimony in Johannesburg, the Reuters news agency reported.

The commission — led by Judge Raymond Zondo — began holding public hearings in August on “state capture,” in which private entities gain influence over state institutions that allows them to secure public resources for personal gain and prevent government authorities from investigating.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has held up the commission as an important pillar of his campaign to root out systemic corruption in South Africa. Its hearings, broadcast live on South African television, recall the country’s famous truth commission of the 1990s, which brought to light apartheid-era crimes and sought to reconcile a society deeply divided by racism and colonialism.


Zuma prepares to testify in the inquiry in Johannesburg on July 15, 2019. (Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg)

But Zuma lambasted the investigative body as a politically motivated project aimed at targeting him personally.

“This commission, from my understanding, was really created to have me coming here and perhaps to find things on me,” he said, according to Reuters. “There has been a drive to remove me from the scene … a conspiracy against me.”

Much of the commission’s work has revolved around the nine-year tenure of Zuma, a celebrated anti-apartheid freedom fighter who emerged as a top African National Congress leader in the 1990s. He was elected president in 2009, and he held the post until his resignation in February 2018. His presidency became mired in accusations that he used the office to consolidate a kleptocracy, granting business leaders enormous sway over government institutions and helping them secure lucrative contracts.

Former finance minister Pravin Gordhan has estimated that theft of public funds while Zuma was president may have amounted to more than $7.2 billion, Bloomberg News reported.

Allegations against Zuma have centered on three Indian brothers and business titans, Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta. Born in India, the brothers moved to South Africa as apartheid was waning in 1993, according to Vanity Fair. They quickly rose to prominence as business executives, launching and sustaining their projects using carefully cultivated ties to the country’s new ANC political elites.


Zuma supporters cheer during his appearance before the Johannesburg commission. (Guillem Sartorio/AFP/Getty Images)

The brothers’ relationship to Zuma stretches back more than 15 years, Vanity Fair reported. The former president’s son, Duduzane Zuma, has been on their payroll since 2003, and the families maintain such close ties that critics and comedians refer to Jacob Zuma and the Guptas as the “Zuptas.”

The Guptas have long supported Zuma’s political career — and in turn, former municipal employees and other witnesses allege, they wielded substantial influence over government appointments during Zuma’s presidency and bribed officials to do their bidding.

The brothers allegedly gained control of government advertising funds and a dairy farm, according to Vanity Fair, as well as multibillion-dollar deals with government-backed companies. The Guptas raised eyebrows in South Africa when Zuma’s administration granted them permission to land a private plane carrying family wedding guests on a military base in 2013.

On Monday, Zuma insisted there was nothing untoward about his relationship with the Guptas.

“I never did anything with them unlawfully — they just remained friends. Never, never did I discuss any matter that does not belong to them,” he told the commission, according to Reuters.

But Zuma appeared less certain when Paul Pretorius — the head of the commission’s legal team — posed other questions about that relationship. Zuma said he could not recall having asked Themba Maseko, the head of the government’s communications service, to assist the Guptas in 2010, Bloomberg News reported, despite Maseko’s earlier testimony that Zuma had done so.

While Zuma said his memory was fuzzy on some issues, he took Monday’s hearings as an opportunity to levy incendiary charges against some former government officials who had cooperated with the commission’s investigation.

He alleged — without evidence — that one of his former cabinet ministers, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, had spied for the former apartheid regime. Ramatlhodi had previously testified about the Guptas’ influence over Zuma. He denied Zuma’s espionage allegation.

That unsubstantiated claim was just one of several Zuma pointed to as evidence of a “conspiracy” to undermine him tracing back to the 1990s. He alleged that foreign intelligence services — he didn’t name which — had decided to remove him from power decades ago.

His 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, according to Reuters.

Despite the public spectacle, Zuma and his supporters did not seem particularly fazed by the public hearings. On Sunday, Zuma tweeted a video of himself laughingly mocking protesters’ chants of “Zuma must fall."

When he entered the Johannesburg hearing room Monday, several dozen supporters broke into applause, Reuters reported. Outside, demonstrators loyal to Zuma chanted “Hands off Zuma!”

The hearing highlighted turmoil within the ANC, the ruling party in South Africa that rose to prominence when it successfully fought apartheid during the second half of the 20th century.

Corruption allegations have roiled the party in recent years, and the ANC won the May 2019 elections with less than 60 percent of the vote — its lowest-ever result. Ramaphosa promised to clean up government, and since he took office, he has booted many of Zuma’s appointees from government posts.

Zuma will continue testifying before the state capture commission until Friday, and analysts have speculated that he may implicate other ANC leaders in corruption or use the platform to criticize Ramaphosa.

On Monday, Zuma issued a veiled threat to fellow ANC leaders who spoke out against him: “I’ve been respectful to comrades. Maybe I’ve reached a point where that must take a back seat.”

This commission is not the first judicial body to accuse Zuma of corruption. Last year, South African prosecutors announced they would reinstate corruption charges against him related to an arms deal finalized in 1999, the New York Times reported.

South Africa’s highest court also ruled in 2016 that Zuma must reimburse the state for nearly $17 million in upgrades to his personal home, which included a swimming pool and an amphitheater. Zuma took out a loan later that year to repay some of the money, the Guardian reported.