January 26, 2018 / 12:18 PM / a year ago

South Africa police conduct raids in case involving Zuma friends

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African police raided the offices of the provincial government in the Free State on Friday in a case involving a friend of President Jacob Zuma and a top official in the African National Congress (ANC) considered a Zuma ally.

FILE PHOTO: President of South Africa Jacob Zuma gestures to his supporters at the 54th National Conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa December 16, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/File Photo

The raid reflects Zuma’s weakened position following his replacement by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa as leader of the ruling party last month.

Zuma, whose presidency has been marred by corruption scandals, could be ousted as head of state within weeks as top party officials discuss forcing him to resign.

A spokesman for the elite ‘Hawks’ crime-fighting unit said police were searching for documents in the Free State premier’s office and agriculture department over the Estina dairy project in the town of Vrede.

One of the ANC’s “top six” most powerful officials, Ace Magashule, is the outgoing premier of the Free State.

The Estina dairy received public money and was meant to benefit the local community. But prosecutors say funds were illegally diverted to bank accounts of people including Atul Gupta, a wealthy businessman.

Atul Gupta, as well as his brothers Ajay and Rajesh, is a friend of Zuma. The South African government has launched a judicial enquiry into allegations the brothers influenced the appointment of cabinet ministers.

Zuma and the Guptas have denied wrongdoing.

As part of the investigation into the dairy, prosecutors have obtained a court order freezing 220 million rand (£13 million) in bank accounts, a spokesman for the state prosecutors’ office said. Atul Gupta was mentioned in the court order as having received the proceeds of crime.

The investigation could have important political repercussions, as it could lead to Magashule losing his job as ANC secretary general, a post that puts him in charge of the day-to-day running of the ruling party.

Ramaphosa did not want Magashule to be chosen as secretary general in December. Should Magashule end up in legal trouble over the dairy project, Ramaphosa could try to replace him with a loyalist.

Magashule said earlier this week that no person was guilty until proven in the courts.

“Wherever there is corruption, the law must take its course. ... We will treat the Vrede dairy in that way,” he told reporters. An ANC spokeswoman was not immediately available for further comment on Friday.

The Hawks spokesman said the investigation into the Estina dairy was at an advanced stage.

Reporting by Alexander Winning; Editing by Ed Cropley and William Maclean

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