A South African corruption watchdog on Friday said President Cyril Ramaphosa "deliberately misled" Parliament about a campaign contribution, a setback for a leader who has vowed to address sprawling graft allegations that forced his predecessor from office and sparked national outrage, report agencies.
The report was released as that former president, Jacob Zuma, abandoned his testimony to a high-profile state commission probing wide-ranging allegations of graft in government and state-owned companies. Zuma, who denies the allegations against him, asserted he was being treated unfairly. But a deal was quickly reached for him to return at some point in the future.
The outcry over years of alleged corruption during Zuma's stay in office has shaken both the economy of South Africa, the most developed in sub-Saharan Africa, and public support for the ruling African National Congress. The party has been in power since the end of the harsh system of racial segregation known as apartheid 25 years ago.
Now the ANC faces an internal struggle between allies of Ramaphosa and Zuma, who led South Africa from 2009 to 2018 when he resigned under party pressure and was replaced by former deputy Ramaphosa.
The current president has repeatedly vowed to fight corruption and win back public confidence.
Friday's report by South Africa's public protector, a constitutionally created office that probes alleged misconduct in state affairs, said Ramaphosa "deliberately misled" lawmakers late last year about a 500,000-rand ($34,000) campaign contribution from the CEO of a local company, Africa Global Operations, formerly Bosasa. The report called on the national director of public prosecutions to investigate further.
In response, a statement posted by Ramaphosa's office asserted that he was not guilty of the accusations and calls on the public protector to allow the president a hearing.
A political analyst and researcher at the University of the Western Cape, Ralph Mathekga, said Ramaphosa should be careful about how he handles the watchdog's report, saying it might hurt the president further if he loses at court.
"This report gives a lot of ammunition not only to his detractors within the ANC but to the Economic Freedom Fighters as well, as they will exploit it to take him on," Mathekga said, referring to a populist opposition party that along with the leading opposition Democratic Alliance had filed complaints alleging wrongdoing.
Separately on Friday, Zuma abruptly cut short his appearance at the state inquiry and his lawyers said the former president would no longer participate. But soon afterward the commission chair, deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, said an agreement had been reached to allow Zuma to return at a later stage.
The commission has no power to prosecute but other authorities could follow up on its findings.
Zuma began his nationally televised testimony this week by calling the graft allegations part of an international intelligence conspiracy that began more than 25 years ago to assassinate his character. On Friday he threatened to expose "spies" if the pressure on him went too far.
Zuma has been questioned about his close relationship with the wealthy Gupta family and allegations that they exerted influence over cabinet appointments and the awarding of lucrative state contracts.
A defiant Zuma told supporters on Friday that he had been the target of many assassination attempts because he has a lot of information about spies who infiltrated the ANC during apartheid. He was once the ANC's intelligence chief.
"I know a lot about spies, that was my job," he said. "I have never played around with that information. But if people now want me to uproot them, I will."