South Africa’s graft-accused ex-president Jacob Zuma said on Monday he had been “vilified”, as he testified at a judicial inquiry into the alleged looting of state funds while he was in power.
“I have been vilified, alleged to be the king of corrupt people,” he told the inquiry. “I have been given every other name and I have never responded to those issues. I believe it is important that we respect one another.”
Zuma had struck a characteristically relaxed tone ahead of his televised appearance, which could last for five days, tweeting a video on Sunday of himself dancing and singing “Zuma must fall” before laughing heartily.
The former president is accused of fostering a culture of corruption during a nine-year reign before he was ousted in 2018 by the ruling ANC party and replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa.
Zuma, 77, was not legally required to appear at the inquiry into the so-called “State Capture” scandal.
State capture describes a form of corruption in which businesses and politicians conspired to influence policies to advance their own interests.
He denies all wrongdoing and dismissed the concept of “state capture”, while his lawyers have described the inquiry as an attempt to “ambush and humiliate” him.
Zuma, who addressed the commission at the start of the day, said that he had been the victim of “character assassination over 20 years.”
His request to see questions in advance was denied by the inquiry commission, which had invited him to appear “to give his side of the story” after other witnesses gave damning evidence against him.
Led by judge Raymond Zondo, the probe is investigating a web of deals involving government officials, the wealthy Gupta family and state-owned companies.
“The commission is not mandated to prove any case against anybody but is mandated to investigate and inquire into certain allegations,” Zondo said, thanking Zuma for appearing.
Before Zuma spoke, his lawyer Muzi Sikhakhane told the commission: “The propaganda machine out there has been quite alive.
“The former president established this commission and is willing to cooperate.”
According to Angelo Agrizzi, one of the inquiry witness, Zuma allegedly accepted a monthly $2,200 bribe delivered in luxury bags from a contracting firm that was trying to evade police investigation.
The money was in theory for his charity foundation.
Agrizzi said his company also organised free parties, bulk alcohol supplies and birthday cakes to keep favour with Zuma’s associates.
Former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, who was sacked by Zuma in 2015, testified that Zuma pushed policies on nuclear power and aviation that were designed to benefit the Gupta family.
The Gupta brothers are accused of fraudulently profiting from government contracts including energy and transport deals under Zuma.
The family owned a uranium mine, which would have seen profits soar from the nuclear deal, as well as a portfolio of mining, technology and media companies.
They allegedly held such sway over Zuma that they were able to select some of his cabinet ministers.
Former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas told the inquiry that the Guptas offered him the finance minister’s job and even threatened to kill him after he refused to accept a $40 million bribe.
Zuma was forced to set up the inquiry in January 2018, shortly before he left office, after failing in a legal battle to overturn the instructions of the country’s ethics ombudsman.
Sitting in central Johannesburg, it has heard from scores of witnesses over 130 days in session since last year.
Zuma has separately been charged with 16 counts of graft linked to an arms deal from before he became president.
The Indian-born Gupta brothers – Ajay, Atul and Rajesh – have left South Africa and are now based in Dubai. They also deny any wrong-doing.
Eager to distance himself from the Zuma era, Ramaphosa has declared his presidency as a “new dawn” for the country and described the inquiry as a “very painful process”.