South African president grilled over COVID-19 graft scandals

FILE  In this Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020 file photo, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his State of the Nation Address in Cape Town, South Africa.  Ramaphosa on Thursday Aug. 27, 2020, faced tough questioning by lawmakers over COVID-19 corruption allegations, days after he asked ruling party members to refrain from stealing money meant for the poor. (Sumaya Hisham/Pool Photo via AP, File)
FILE In this Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020 file photo, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his State of the Nation Address in Cape Town, South Africa. Ramaphosa on Thursday Aug. 27, 2020, faced tough questioning by lawmakers over COVID-19 corruption allegations, days after he asked ruling party members to refrain from stealing money meant for the poor. (Sumaya Hisham/Pool Photo via AP, File)

JOHANNESBURG – South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday faced tough questioning by lawmakers over COVID-19 corruption scandals, days after he asked ruling party members to refrain from stealing money meant for the poor.

Many South Africans have been dismayed to see the country's widespread graft problem infiltrate efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus. South Africa has the world's fifth largest virus caseload with more than 600,000 confirmed infections.

Ramaphosa promised to overhaul the government’s procurement system, which he said is vulnerable to corruption. “Clearly, this COVID moment has given us the opportunity" for change, he said, promising “a much more effective" system.

It was his first question-and-answer session with lawmakers since corruption allegations were leveled against high-ranking officials in the government and the ruling African National Congress party.

“It is disgraceful that at this time of national crisis, there are companies and individuals who seek to criminally benefit from our efforts to protect people’s health and save lives,” Ramaphosa said.

Graft claims related to the country’s $26 billion social relief package for the pandemic, which included the purchase of large amounts of personal protective equipment, have rocked the country. Ramaphosa’s own spokeswoman, Khusela Diko, was placed on leave due to the allegations.

The provincial health minister of the country’s economic hub, Gauteng province, Bandile Masuku, also has been placed on leave after being linked to corruption claims.

The leader of the official opposition, the liberal Democratic Alliance party, criticised Ramaphosa for allowing the former mayor of eThekwini municipality, Zandile Gumede, to be appointed as a provincial lawmaker despite facing corruption charges.