S. Africa's Zuma moves to block graft report

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Johannesburg (AFP) - South African President Jacob Zuma moved on Thursday to block a watchdog's potentially explosive report into graft allegations against him, in his latest legal bid to protect his battered reputation.

Zuma, 74, has survived a series of damaging scandals while in office, but has faced increasing criticism as the economy stalls and after the ruling ANC party suffered unprecedented losses in local polls.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela had been expected to release on Friday her report into allegations that Zuma let a wealthy business family have undue influence over government and were even able to choose ministers.

"There is an application for an urgent interdict," Zuma's spokesman Bongani Ngqulunga told AFP, giving no further details.

Madonsela's spokesman said the court application was due to be heard Tuesday.

Madonsela, who is celebrated in South Africa for her diligent work unearthing official misconduct, stands down on Saturday after completing her seven-year term in office.

In 2014, she dealt a major blow to Zuma in a report that found he had "unduly benefited" from the refurbishment of his Nkandla rural home -- valued in 2014 at 216 million rand (then $24 million).

Zuma fought the case until being berated by the Constitutional Court and ordered to pay back $500,000 (450,000 euros) of money that had been spent on upgrades including a chicken coop and a swimming pool that was described as a fire-fighting precaution.

- Corrupt influence? -

The Nkandla scandal became a symbol of corruption and greed within the African National Congress and triggered several unsuccessful impeachment bids against Zuma by the opposition.

The president's new legal battle is to seek to block a report into "state capture" -- the alleged corrupt influence of the powerful Gupta business family on government appointments, contracts and state-owned businesses.

The three Gupta brothers, Ajay, Atul and Rajesh, have built a business empire in mining, media, technology and engineering since moving to South Africa in the 1990s.

Madonsela questioned Zuma for four hours earlier this month over the allegations, including the suggestion that deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas had been offered a promotion by the Guptas.

"One would think that President Zuma has concluded that the report won't be too friendly on him, that it might contain explosive findings," Richard Calland, political analyst based at the University of Cape Town, told AFP.

Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst, described Zuma's action as "abuse of the legal system".

- Political tussles -

"He is under pressure," he said. "He wants to try and bury the report in its current form before it even sees the light of day, which is a complete suppression."

Zuma, 74, endured another bout of criticism this week after Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, with whom he has repeatedly clashed, was summoned to court on separate graft charges.

Gordhan, a vocal campaigner against corruption within the government, has alleged that the case against him is politically motivated.

The announcement that Gordhan would be prosecuted sent the rand plummeting and sparked investor fears that he would soon be sacked -- a move likely to spell further trouble for South Africa's dire economic health.

Gordhan, an internationally-respected technocrat, was appointed only last year to calm panicked investors after Zuma sacked two finance ministers within four days.

Madonsela will be succeeded by Busisiwe Mkhwebane, currently a senior official at the intelligence agency.

Zuma, who is due to step down in 2019, is also fighting a court order that could reinstate almost 800 corruption charges against him.

The 783 charges relate to alleged corruption, racketeering, fraud and money laundering over a multi-billion dollar arms deal in the 1990s.

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