A South African commission hearing testimonies about rampant state corruption during Jacob Zuma’s reign said Monday that it would ask police to investigate the former president after he walked out last week.
After months of playing cat-and-mouse, Zuma appeared before the panel last week seeking what he called an “impartial” judge, demanding that the commission’s chair, deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, recuse himself.
But Zondo tossed out his application on Thursday, saying it “failed to meet the test for a reasonable apprehension of bias.”
Shortly after the ruling, Zuma’s lawyer Muzi Sikhakhane told Zondo that he would report him to the judiciary watchdog on the grounds that he had “become a judge in a dispute that involves yourself”.
The commission took a few minutes recess, after which Zuma and his lawyer did not return.
Zuma had been expected to be requested to take to the witness stand.
On Monday, the commission announced it would “lay a criminal complaint with the South African police against Mr Zuma so that the police can investigate his conduct”.
The commission will now issue summons to force Zuma to return to testify.
Judge Zondo said Zuma’s behaviour risks sending a wrong message to the rest of the witnesses that if they were uncomfortable to answer questions they could simply excuse themselves and “can come and go as they please”.
“If that were to happen this commission would not be able to operate,” Zondo said.
“It is therefore quite important for the proper functioning of this commission that Mr Zuma’s conduct be dealt with in a manner in which our law provides.”
The panel, which has been hearing testimonies since 2018, said it will also urgently approach the country’s top tribunal, the Constitutional Court, seeking an order that will compel Zuma “to comply with the summons”.
Zuma is suspected of enabling the widespread looting of state assets during his 2009-18 presidency.
Lavish government contracts were awarded to an Indian business family, the Guptas, among other scandals.
– ‘Godfather of S.African politics’ –
The 78-year-old has only testified to the commission once, in July 2019, but pulled out after a few days, saying he was being treated as an “accused” rather than as a witness.
At least 34 witnesses have directly or indirectly implicated Zuma, who has denied any wrongdoing.
In the face of the corruption scandals, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) forced Zuma to step down in February 2018.
He was succeeded by Cyril Ramaphosa, who has vowed to confront the “scourge” of corruption.
The commission hearing has turned into a new political battleground, according to Xolani Dube, a researcher with the Durban-based Xubera Institute.
“Zuma is the godfather of South African politics,” the analyst said.
“This is the fight between the one who is perceived to be representing the condemned, the outcast, versus those who are ruling the economy of our country.”
“He (Zuma) is feeling betrayed by the so-called dominant class, the ruling elite. They want to make him the sacrificial lamb and he is refusing to do that”.
Zuma is due in court next month for a pre-trial hearing in a separate case where he is accused of taking bribes to facilitate a $3.4 billion arms deal with French arms company Thales.