South Africa in danger of becoming 'a mafia state,' ANC leader warns

South African President Jacob Zuma is facing allegations that he allowed a powerful family to engineer the hiring and firing of Cabinet ministers.

Members of his own ruling party, the African National Congress, have come forward in recent days claiming that members of the Gupta family offered them top government positions on the condition that they act to advance its commercial interests.

The country is in danger of becoming a "mafia state where all that the state will be doing is to nurse interests of family businesses," Gwede Mantashe, the party secretary-general, told reporters late last week.

Three Gupta brothers run a business empire that spans mining, media and aviation. They are friendly with Zuma, and have partnered in several ventures with his son and employed a daughter and one of his wives.

Zuma has denied the allegations. "I am in charge of the government," he told Parliament on Thursday. "I appoint in terms of the constitution. There is no minister here who was appointed by the Guptas or anybody else. Ministers are appointed by me."

For its part, the Gupta family published a statement that the claims are part of a plot to oust the president.

"These latest allegations are just more political point-scoring between rival factions within the ANC," it said, adding that "any suggestion that the Gupta family or any of our representatives or associates have offered anyone a job in government is totally false."

Zuma's popularity has plummeted in recent months as the economy continues to dive and key members of his own party turn against him.

The party's national executive committee — which has the power to fire the president — was holding a regularly scheduled meeting over the weekend. It was not clear whether Zuma's fate or the scandal would be discussed.

The issue began in December when Zuma fired the finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, who was widely respected by investors, and replaced him with the former mayor of a small municipality who had little experience in finance.

The move crashed the stock market and the national currency, the rand. Under pressure, Zuma installed another finance minister four days later in an effort to restore confidence in the economy.

This past week, the deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, said that days before Nene's dismissal, members of the Gupta family offered him the finance minister's job at a meeting at their house — and that he rejected it. Local media reported that the Guptas wanted Jonas to fire certain Finance Ministry officials.

Zuma told Parliament that he fired Nene because the rand was sinking.

Another party member, former legislator Vytjie Mentor, said on Facebook that the Guptas offered her the job of minister for public enterprises in 2010 on the condition that she ensure South African Airways drop its India route. She turned down the offer, she wrote.

Barbara Hogan, who held the job at the time but was soon fired, said she had rebuffed pressure to meet with an airline associated with the Gupta family.

"There was always talk of how many people were visiting them behind the scenes," she said in a radio interview late last week. "This is a defining moment. The rot is for us to see, all before us."

Adding to the intrigue, Zola Tsotsi, an ANC member who resigned last year as head of the state-owned electricity company, told a local newspaper that his departure was orchestrated by the Guptas.

"Two months after the appointment, they called me and said they will have me fired because I am not playing the game," he said. "I was forced to resign shortly after that."

Zuma, 73, who spent time in prison with Nelson Mandela and has a long history of deflecting personal and political scandals, became president in 2009 and was elected to a second five-year term in 2014.

William Gumede, a political analyst at the think tank Democracy Works, said some members of the ANC's 90-person executive body feared that openly opposing Zuma would cost them their government jobs.

"People have shifted against Zuma, but we may not be at the point where they actually stand up," he said.


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A version of this article appeared in print on March 20, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Corruption claims roil S. Africa - President Jacob Zuma is accused of letting a powerful family affect high-level government decisions." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe