JOHANNESBURG — Three years ago, amid a flurry of corruption scandals that rocked South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa assumed power on promises to root out graft and restore public confidence in the governing party, the African National Congress.
But over the past year, those efforts have been threatened by a brazen show of defiance from his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, who has snubbed a commission investigating graft during his tenure, refused to appear before the country’s highest court and lobbed attacks on its judges.
Mr. Ramaphosa appeared before corruption investigators himself on Wednesday to account for his party’s scandals and sought to reinforce his vision for a corruption-free A.N.C. His appearance sent a message to a disillusioned nation: No one in South Africa — even a sitting president — is above the law.
“When I was confirming that I would be appearing, I happened to be talking to one of my colleagues who is also a head of state,” Mr. Ramaphosa said in his opening statement. “His reaction was, ‘Ah, how can you do that as head of state?’ I said: ‘This is how our democracy works.’”
from state coffers during Mr. Zuma’s tenure, according to government estimates.
Mr. Ramaphosa’s testimony on Wednesday is the first in four days of questioning at the South African Commission on State Capture, an inquiry into the endemic graft during that period. He was called to answer questions both in his role as the current leader of the A.N.C. and as Mr. Zuma’s former deputy.
As part of its broad probe, the panel is investigating whether the current president was directly involved in corruption in his previous role overseeing the A.N.C.’s deployment of often unqualified loyalists to key government positions. Those appointments, according to testimony to the commission, contributed to the hollowing out of the state and led to backdoor deals that drained public funds.
His testimony comes as the inquiry prepares to deliver its final report in June and as Mr. Zuma — the center of the investigation — has staunchly resisted calls to appear before investigators.
In recent months, the former president defied a court order to appear before the commission, prompting its chief investigator to seek a two-year prison sentence for contempt of court. When the country’s top court heard that case last month, Mr. Zuma again refused to appear — a move that many saw as an open challenge to the country’s democratic institutions.