Senior S.African minister lied to parliament: watchdog

Accused: South Africa's minister of public enterprises, Pravin Gordhan (AFP Photo/Phill Magakoe)

Johannesburg (AFP) - South Africa's ethics watchdog said Friday that a respected minister had lied to lawmakers when saying he had never met the controversial Gupta business family at the heart of corruption allegations.

In a report set against a backdrop of infighting within the ruling ANC party, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane said Pravin Gordhan intentionally misled the national assembly in 2018.

"The allegation that Mr Gordhan violated the Executive Ethics Code by deliberately misleading the National Assembly... is substantiated," she said in a report.

Gordhan is the newly-appointed minister of public enterprises and a close ally of President Cyril Ramaphosa, who last year forced out former head of state Jacob Zuma.

The public protector in South Africa is an ombudsman who should be politically independent, although critics accuse Mkhwebane of being a Zuma loyalist.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) is bitterly split between Zuma supporters and those backing Ramaphosa, who took the helm after Zuma became entangled in graft scandals.

Gordhan told a judicial inquiry into state corruption this year that he had forgotten about the 2010 meeting with the Gupta family until reminded by his then chief of staff.

"I find this rather implausible," Mkhwebane told reporters in Pretoria.

The judicial inquiry is investigating deals involving the Gupta family and state-owned companies during Zuma's presidency.

Mkhwebane also made damning findings against Gordhan about the time when he was the head of South Africa's tax authority, accusing him of involvement in an illegal intelligence unit.

Gordhan immediately fought back, saying in a statement that the "Public Protector continues to get the facts wrong, get the law wrong and is demonstrably biased."

Mkhwebane gave Ramaphosa 30 days to discipline Gordhan -- a ruling set to inflame tensions within the ANC, which was voted back into office in May.

Gordhan, who was widely seen by investors as a bulwark against corruption, served as finance minister from 2009-2014 and from 2015-2017.