Zuma Under Fire as Opponents Target Home Spending, Gupta Family

  • Opposition pursues Constitutional Court case on Home Upgrade
  • EFF also accuses Zuma of peddling political influence

South African President Jacob Zuma is increasingly under fire as opposition parties sue him over the spending of state funds on his private home and allegations swirl that the government is favoring the commercial interests of an Indian family that’s in business with one of his sons.

While the two main opposition parties said Friday they will pursue their lawsuit in the Constitutional Court next week to force Zuma to repay taxpayer money used to refurbish his home, his mines minister had to issue a denial that he favored a company owned by Zuma’s friends, the Guptas, in the sale of Baar, Switzerland-based Glencore Plc’s Optimum coal mine.

“Zuma is starting to lose some of his grip,” Daryl Glaser, a politics professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, said by phone from Johannesburg on Friday. “Some of his critics are beginning to find their voice and some of his long-standing associations are being questioned. Where this will all lead is very difficult to say.”

Zuma’s troubles deepened in December when he replaced Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene with a little known lawmaker -- a decision he was forced to change four days later after the rand and bonds fell sharply. That prompted renewed criticism of his leadership of the ruling African National Congress as the party faces potential challenges in some major cities in local elections scheduled between May and August.

Nkandla Scandal

Following two years of denying liability, Zuma, 73, issued a statement on Tuesday that he was ready to repay some of the 215.9 million rand ($13.3 million) the state spent on the house, including the construction of an amphitheater, cattle and chicken enclosures and a swimming pool at his home in Nkandla in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province. The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, and the Economic Freedom Fighters said that the hearing should proceed as scheduled on Feb. 9.

With the upcoming local government elections, the two parties are intent on ensuring that any allegations of impropriety in the ANC and Zuma’s government don’t blow over.

Another target is the Gupta family, which has built a business empire spanning computer equipment, media and mining since Atul Gupta arrived in South Africa from Uttar Pradesh, India, in 1993. He runs the businesses together with his brothers Ajay and Rajesh.

Gupta Business

On Friday, Mines Minister Mosebenzi Zwane denied accusations that he favored Tegeta Exploration & Resources (Pty) Ltd., which is controlled by the Guptas, in talks over the sale of Glencore’s Optimum coal mine.

Glencore is selling the mine after placing it under bankruptcy protection. While Glencore said it worked with “stakeholders,” including the government, to facilitate Optimum’s sale, the Sunday Times reported that Zwane met Chief Executive Officer Ivan Glasenberg in Zurich about the matter.

Zwane said he became involved in the sale to preserve Optimum’s 3,000 jobs.

Asked whether he is friends with the Guptas, he said: “I met with them, I’ve engaged them, I’ve engaged other big mining giants and will continue to do so,” he said. “You can’t attract investment in the country if you’re not talking to people like the Guptas.”

Weapons Deal

The Mail & Guardian newspaper reported Friday that Denel SOC Ltd., a weapons manufacturer owned by South Africa’s government, has entered into a joint venture in Asia with partners who have been linked to the Guptas.

Denel announced the establishment of Denel Asia with VR Laser in a statement last week. VR Laser is registered at the same address as other Gupta family businesses and its directors include Kamal Singhala, a nephew of the Guptas, the Johannesburg-based newspaper said.

Such reports have energized the opposition, particularly the EFF, which has emerged as Zuma’s biggest nemesis since it was founded by Julius Malema, a former leader of the ruling African National Congress’ youth wing, in 2013. The party disrupted Zuma’s annual state-of-the-nation address in parliament in February last year before they were evicted by security personnel and has pledged to stage further protests when the president delivers this year’s address on Feb. 11.

“The demand is Guptas must leave the country with immediate effect,” Malema told reporters on Thursday. “We are tired about talking about the Guptas. We cannot have a situation where South Africa is colonized by a family. We are not going to allow Guptas to masquerade as legitimate business people when they are not.”

Gary Naidoo, a spokesman for the Gupta family, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail sent to his office seeking comment.

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