JOHANNESBURG — Three years in the past, amid a flurry of corruption scandals that rocked South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa assumed energy on guarantees to root out graft and restore public confidence within the governing get together, the African National Congress.

But over the previous 12 months, these efforts have been threatened by a brazen present of defiance from his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, who has snubbed a commission investigating graft throughout his tenure, refused to appear earlier than the nation’s highest courtroom and lobbed assaults on its judges.

Mr. Ramaphosa appeared earlier than corruption investigators himself on Wednesday to account for his get together’s scandals and sought to bolster his imaginative and prescient for a corruption-free A.N.C. His look despatched a message to a disillusioned nation: No one in South Africa — even a sitting president — is above the regulation.

“When I was confirming that I would be appearing, I happened to be talking to one of my colleagues who is also a head of state,” Mr. Ramaphosa mentioned in his opening assertion. “His reaction was, ‘Ah, how can you do that as head of state?’ I said: ‘This is how our democracy works.’”

In televised hearings over the previous three years, the fee has unearthed an internet of corruption round Mr. Zuma that grew to become endemic throughout his 9 years in energy. Under his management, high-ranking A.N.C. officers distributed profitable authorities contracts in change for bribes in what grew to become one of the crucial notorious chapters of South Africa’s historical past since apartheid led to 1994. Corruption drained round $33 billion from state coffers throughout Mr. Zuma’s tenure, based on authorities estimates.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s testimony on Wednesday is the primary in 4 days of questioning on the South African Commission on State Capture, an inquiry into the endemic graft throughout that interval. He was referred to as to reply questions each in his position as the present chief of the A.N.C. and as Mr. Zuma’s former deputy.

As a part of its broad inquiry, the panel is investigating whether or not the present president was immediately concerned in corruption in his earlier position overseeing the A.N.C.’s deployment of usually unqualified loyalists to key authorities positions. Those appointments, based on testimony to the fee, contributed to the hollowing out of the state and led to backdoor offers that drained public funds.

His testimony comes because the inquiry prepares to ship its remaining report in June and as Mr. Zuma — the middle of the investigation — has staunchly resisted calls to seem earlier than investigators.

In current months, the previous president defied a court order to seem earlier than the fee, prompting its chief investigator to hunt a two-year jail sentence for contempt of courtroom. When the nation’s prime courtroom heard that case final month, Mr. Zuma again refused to appear — a transfer that many noticed as an open problem to the nation’s democratic establishments.

Mr. Zuma, who denies all accusations in opposition to him, has accused the corruption inquiry’s chief, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, of harboring a private vendetta, and has attacked the investigation itself.

“What we’ve seen the last couple of months is an attack led by Jacob Zuma on the constitutional system,” mentioned William Gumede, the chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation, a South African nonprofit group. “This is really a moment in our country where we have to decide if we are either for constitutional democracy or we reject it fully.”

The stark distinction between Mr. Zuma’s and Mr. Ramaphosa’s willingness to have interaction with the fee displays an escalating showdown inside the A.N.C., Nelson Mandela’s once-celebrated motion for liberation which has ruled the nation since apartheid led to 1994.

In current years, the get together has grow to be deeply divided between these loyal to Mr. Zuma — and his imaginative and prescient of a liberation get together that stands above the regulation — and people who assist Mr. Ramaphosa’s efforts to overtake it.

“Both represent two different faces of the party, the democratic and the undemocratic. Both are battling for the soul of the A.N.C.,” Mr. Gumede mentioned.

In his testimony on Wednesday, Mr. Ramaphosa provided a thinly veiled however damning condemnation of Mr. Zuma and his allies who’re additionally below investigation for graft, which Mr. Ramaphosa, analysts and watchdog teams have mentioned stays an issue inside the get together’s ranks.

Many have been emboldened by Mr. Zuma’s current defiance in efforts to carry officers accountable. They embody one other prime A.N.C. official, Ace Magashule, who has refused to step down from his present publish regardless of corruption fees prosecutors just lately laid in opposition to him. He denies the fees.

“The position of the A.N.C. on leaders and members who have been complicit in acts of corruption or other crimes: Their actions are a direct violation not only of the laws of the Republic, but also of the A.N.C. constitution, its values and principles,” mentioned Mr. Ramaphosa, sitting earlier than the fee’s chief investigator in a big wood-paneled auditorium. “Such members must face the full legal consequences of their actions.”

Still Mr. Ramaphosa treaded a nice line in his testimony between acknowledging that corruption runs rampant inside the A.N.C. and defending the get together insurance policies that many say helped pave the way in which for that graft. Mr. Ramaphosa additionally shunned naming any A.N.C. members allegedly concerned in corruption scandals.

The measured responses have been obligatory for his political survival inside the A.N.C., analysts say. But additionally they left many South Africans who have been watching skeptical of his skill to face as much as corrupt officers inside his personal get together.

“South Africans have wanted to see political defeat of those who allegedly committed impropriety and we haven’t seen that yet,” mentioned Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst. “Now the cynicism is setting in.”

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