Johannesburg: South Africa’s elite police on Thursday arrested a senior ruling ANC lawmaker and ex-state security minister for graft, the first such high-profile arrest in recent years.
Bongani Bongo, 41, a close ally of scandal-tainted former president Jacob Zuma, is accused of offering a bribe to a lawyer who was building the state’s case in a 2017 parliamentary inquiry into irregularities at the troubled public power utility Eskom.
“He is facing charges of corruption based on allegations that he tried to influence (a lawyer) during a parliamentary inquiry on Eskom,” brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi, spokesman for the police special crimes unit known as the Hawks, told AFP.
He said the former minister tried to get the lawyer to “frustrate the process” by taking sick leave in exchange for “a blank cheque”.
In a statement the National Prosecuting Authority’s spokesman Eric Ntabazalila said Bongo had offered the lawyer “an unlawful gratification in the form of a monetary benefit, requesting him to decide on the exact amount required, to stop the enquiry from proceeding”.
But the lawyer, Nthutuzela Vanara, turned down the offer and reported the case to the police.
Zuma appointed Bongo state security minister just two weeks after he allegedly tried to bribe the lawyer.
He lasted only four months in the job before he was removed in a cabinet reshuffle by President Cyril Ramaphosa after Zuma was forced to resign from office.
Zuma was forced to resign as president in February 2018 by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party after a nine-year reign marred by corruption allegations and dwindling popularity.
Under Zuma, state-owned companies were at the centre of corruption scandals popularly referred to as “state capture” which saw the mass looting of public assets.
A judicial inquiry is currently investigating the web of deals involving government officials, the wealthy Gupta business family and state-owned companies.
- More arrests to come –
Corruption watchdogs have welcomed the arrest, saying it points to the commitment of Ramaphosa’s administration to tackle graft.
“The fact that a high-profile political figure like Bongo has been arrested is very encouraging,” Corruption Watch executive David Lewis told AFP.
“There is determination… basically to start enforcing the law,” he said.
Indigo Ellis, analyst of the London-based Verisk Maplecroft risk advisors, however warned that Ramaphosa “needs to begin moving fast against political figures involved in corruption”.
“Remedying the poor governance outlook will take more than these arrests, but it is an encouraging sign for the future – if Ramaphosa is able to capitalise on it and achieve prosecutions and jail time,” Ellis said.
Arrests of prominent government officials are rare in South Africa, but the Hawks spokesman vowed “we are going to arrest more”.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance party described Bongo as “one of many state capture footsoldiers who actively participated in the selling off of our country, and we can only hope that his arrest will be the first of many.”
DA’s chief whip in parliament, Natasha Mazzone, added: “It is no secret that Bongo was a critical acolyte in the Guptas’ and Jacob Zuma’s state capture mafia.”
The ruling ANC parliamentary caucus has refused to comment on the arrest.
Bongo, who currently chairs the home affairs committee in parliament, briefly appeared before a magistrate court on Thursday and was freed on bail of 5,000 rand (306 euros, $340).
He was ordered to return to court on January 31.