Johannesburg: South Africa's former president Jacob Zuma, facing allegations of corruption, has told an inquiry that he initiated the idea of having an "alternative media" in the country that led to the controversial Indian-origin Gupta family establishing their media empire.
Zuma, who was forced to resign as president in February 2018, appeared for the first time on Monday at the inquiry, which is investigating allegations that he oversaw a web of corruption during his term in office.
The allegations against 77-year-old Zuma focus on his relationship with the Gupta family, which was accused of influencing Cabinet appointments and winning lucrative state tenders through corruption.
"I have been vilified, alleged to be the king of corrupt people," Zuma told the inquiry led by Judge Ray Zondo. Zuma told the judge that he had conceived the idea of having an "alternative media" in South Africa because "the media in this country is very biased; at all material times, just critical".
The Zondo Commission is inquiring into allegations of "state capture" during Zuma's rule. Zuma said the African National Congress (ANC) had been trying to establish some media as an "alternative" voice, but despite trying by partnering with other people, this never worked.
He had then suggested that a newspaper be established, which the ANC had agreed to. This led to him approaching the Guptas with the idea.
"They seemed to be warm to the idea," Zuma said, adding that he and ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe met the Guptas to further discuss the idea.
"When (the Guptas) were ready with the idea, they said to me: 'Give us a name; we don't know what to call this newspaper'." He gave them some names of newspapers during the freedom struggle, from which they selected 'The New Age'.
"When this paper was operating and really being appreciated in this country to bring in an alternative voice, … I wondered whether I could push them further," he said. "I suggested the paper to them; I suggested the [TV] channel [ANN7].
The Guptas partnered with a media house in India to establish the ANN7 channel, which was closed down after allegations of their involvement in "state capture" emerged. The New Age was earlier first sold to an individual with controversial vendor financing from the Guptas, but also shut down after being economically unviable.
"Somebody can then say we were abusing this friendship. It was never the other way round," Zuma said. "It's me who put them into trouble because I said your paper is so successful and so your TV thing can be successful.
"They agreed and said it's a good idea and they moved on it. There was no law broken there. There was no wrong thing done," he said. "ANN7 brought fresh air in the country in terms of reporting; in terms of putting across progressive ideas," the former president said. "It was never a back door thing or there's corruption about it. Never."
Zuma said he found the Gupta family "very friendly". "I never did anything with them unlawfully. They just remained friends, as they were friends to everybody else," Zuma said, adding that they had also been friends of former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.
He objected to allegations that he had allowed the state to be "captured" by the family, and had auctioned the country, the BBC reported. "Did I auction Table Mountain? Did I auction Johannesburg?" he said.
Zuma resigned as president in February last year after huge outcries over his alleged involvement in corrupt and illegal activities that left a number of government departments bankrupt. He was replaced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was subsequently re-elected during a national election.
The commission had heard evidence from a number of witnesses, including former ministers of state, implicating Zuma in a range of activities, among them his closeness to the three Gupta brothers who allegedly fleeced a number of government organisations of billions of rand. Zuma has repeatedly denied these allegations.
The Gupta family, originally from Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, rose to power in the IT, mining and media sectors after coming to South Africa as the new democracy dawned under President Nelson Mandela.
The family has since relocated to Dubai amid calls for them to come and testify before the Commission. The eldest brother, Ajay Gupta, earlier offered to testify in the camera but not in person, which was declined by the chairman of the Commission, Judge Zondo.
A number of former senior members of government testified that they had been told by the Gupta brothers about their imminent appointment by Zuma and about their appointment as ministers even before the former President had called them.
Updated Date: Jul 16, 2019 20:40:30 IST