President Cyril Ramaphosa says governing party "could and should" have done more to prevent state looting under his predecessor Jacob Zuma.

Ramaphosa, the first sitting president to testify in such a probe, appeared in his capacity as the current leader of the African National Congress.
Ramaphosa, the first sitting president to testify in such a probe, appeared in his capacity as the current leader of the African National Congress. (Reuters)

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa has admitted that the country's ruling party could have done more to halt state corruption under his predecessor Jacob Zuma.

During a much-anticipated appearance before a judicial panel probing allegations of corruption and fraud under Zuma, Ramaphosa said on Wednesday the corruption had "eroded" constitutional values and "undermined the rule of law."

"We all acknowledge that the organisation could and should have done more to prevent the abuse of power and the misappropriation of resources that defined the era of state capture," Ramaphosa told the panel probing alleged state looting.

"The ANC does admit that it made mistakes... It had shortcomings in living up to the expectations of the people of South Africa in relation to enforcing accountability," he said.

Ramaphosa, the first sitting president to testify in such a probe, appeared in his capacity as the current leader of the African National Congress (ANC).

READ MORE: Inquiry into top-level state corruption opens in South Africa

State capture inquiry

Dozens of ministers and former ministers, elected officials, businessmen and senior civil servants have appeared before the commission.

At the centre of the scandal is the Gupta business family, who won lucrative contracts with state companies and were allegedly even able to choose cabinet ministers.

Zuma and the Guptas have repeatedly denied the allegations against them.

Ramaphosa admitted that the ANC had over the years become aware of malfeasance and patronage within the state and within its own ranks.

"State capture took place under our watch as the governing party," he said.

"It involved some members and leaders of our organisation and it found fertile ground in the divisions, weaknesses and tendencies that have developed in our organisation since 1994," Ramaphosa said, referring to the year of South Africa's first post-apartheid elections.

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Calls for Ramaphosa to take blame

Ramaphosa told the inquiry it took time for the ANC to recognise high-level corruption during the period, but that he would not try to "make excuses or to defend the indefensible." 

He did not mention Zuma by name.

Ramaphosa said that "corrosive corruption" had hurt the ANC's support among voters, six months before local government elections at which the party will look to improve on its worst election results since the end of apartheid.

Opposition parties held a gathering outside the building where the inquiry was being held and participants said Ramaphosa should personally shoulder some of the blame.

"Ramaphosa was part and parcel of the decisions. He was the deputy president of the country when money disappeared," said William Madisha, a lawmaker with small party COPE. 

"The ANC must pay back what belongs to the people."

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Fight against corruption 

Ramaphosa, the ANC's deputy leader from 2012 to 2017 and deputy president from 2014 until 2018, has made the fight against graft one of his calling cards.

After he won a closely fought battle for the ANC leadership against Zuma's ex-wife in December 2017, his allies in the party engineered Zuma's ouster, allowing him to take over as head of state in February 2018, before Zuma's second five-year term was due to end.

He trod cautiously at the start of his presidency as a faction in the ANC remained loyal to Zuma, but has grown increasingly assertive.

At a March meeting of the party's National Executive Committee, his supporters pushed through tighter disciplinary measures for members implicated in corruption and other serious crimes.

A key test of those stricter rules will be whether Secretary-General Ace Magashule, seen as a Zuma loyalist, vacates his post in the coming days because of corruption charges. 

Magashule denies the charges but at the end of March the party gave him and others charged with serious crimes a 30-day deadline to "step aside."

READ MORE: South Africa's ANC vows to act on corruption, EFF promises radical reforms

Zuma resists testifying

Accused of enabling runaway graft, Zuma has testified before the panel only once, in 2019, before staging a walkout.

He has since repeatedly resisted testifying, alleging political interference.

Ramaphosa, who took over from the disgraced Zuma in 2018 and won election the following year, exhorted all party members to cooperate with the commission.

The president is expected to continue testifying on Thursday, then return to the probe in his capacity as head of state in May.

READ MORE: South Africa's graft-accused Zuma claims he has been 'vilified'

Source: TRTWorld and agencies