JOHANNESBURG – A senior South African government official said on Wednesday that a wealthy family close to President Jacob Zuma offered him a Cabinet position in what the official called “a mockery of our hard earned democracy.”
Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas said that members of the Gupta family, which has extensive business interests in South Africa, asked him to replace Nhlanhla Nene, who was sacked in December in a move that rattled markets and raised questions about Zuma’s leadership.
Jonas says he rejected the offer from the Guptas.
“The basis of my rejection of their offer is that it makes a mockery of our hard earned democracy,” Jonas said in a statement. “No one apart from the president of the republic appoints ministers.”
Zuma is scheduled to answer questions from members of parliament on Thursday, where opposition parties say they will seek clarity on the political influence of the Gupta family.
A growing concern around “state capture” should not be ignored, Jonas said. In recent weeks, opposition party politicians have alleged that government agencies are being misused for personal gain.
Jonas was responding to media reports that members of the Gupta family met with him before Nene was sacked. In a front page report on Sunday, the Sunday Times newspaper alleged that two brothers, Atul and Ajay Gupta, along with Zuma’s son Duduzane Zuma, offered him the post of finance minister before Nene was fired.
Nene was sacked in December and succeeded by a relatively unknown legislator, but the public outcry and negative financial reaction brought Zuma to quickly replace him. By the time Zuma appointed another new finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, South Africa had three different finance ministers in just one week. The appointment of Gordhan, who had previously held the finance minister’s post, brought a measure of relief to markets. But, South Africa’s currency has again weakened amid a public dispute between Gordhan and police investigators.
Earlier this week, Vytjie Mentor, a former ruling party parliamentarian, said the Guptas had previously offered her the post of minister of public enterprises, the department that handles South Africa’s national electricity supplier, railway service and national airline carrier. In a Facebook comment, Mentor said she was offered the post provided that she drop the South African Airways route to India.
In a statement, Zuma’s office denied Mentor’s allegation, saying the president “has no recollection of Ms Mentor and is not aware of the alleged incidents.”