CAPE TOWN — Jacob Zuma, the former South African president whose tenure was marred by corruption scandals, appeared for the first time on Monday before a high-profile commission looking into accusations that he enabled the plundering and misuse of state resources.
Under Mr. Zuma’s leadership, the governing African National Congress became embroiled in what South Africans have come to know as “state capture” — corruption at the highest levels of government, for the benefit of wealthy private interests and A.N.C. officials.
The commission, chaired by Judge Raymond Zondo, has already brought to light stupefying accusations of graft, including multimillion-dollar cash bribes being paid “like monopoly money” to senior A.N.C. leaders.
South Africans have keenly awaited the testimony in Johannesburg of Mr. Zuma, who has not yet given a public account of his conduct while president. It was not clear until Monday whether Mr. Zuma, a dogged political fighter, would cooperate with the commission. He had promised only that he would “go there and see.”
There was a risk that Mr. Zuma would instead use the public platform to embarrass his rivals in the A.N.C., including President Cyril Ramaphosa, who ousted Mr. Zuma in 2018 while promising to stamp out corruption.
Mr. Zuma began his appearance on Monday with a long statement maintaining — as he has for years — that he is the victim of a decades-long smear campaign by rivals and spies, including foreign intelligence agencies.
And political allies of Mr. Ramaphosa, including his deputy, David Mabuza, have been linked to corruption scandals of their own. Even Mr. Ramaphosa has been accused of receiving bribes from Bosasa, a company that has featured heavily in the commission’s inquiry.
“I hope people are not opening a can of worms which they might regret,” Mr. Zuma warned on Twitter on Twitter in March, after a damning report from Mr. Ramaphosa’s office.
Among other allegations, Mr. Zuma has been accused of abusing state funds to lavishly upgrade his private home; steering lucrative government contracts to an Indian business family, the Guptas; and dismantling key state institutions to allow unfettered looting of the treasury, in some cases with the help of consulting firms like Bain and McKinsey.
After insulating himself against prosecution for years, Mr. Zuma has also been formally charged over his role in a multibillion-dollar arms scandal in the late 1990s.
Mr. Zuma is scheduled to appear before the state capture commission until Friday. But there were early signs that he would not surrender easily.
A day before his first appearance, he took to Twitter, where he has quickly grown a large following since being ousted from the presidency. He used the platform to mock three older white protesters who were filmed chanting “Zuma must go” during nationwide protests in 2016.
“I thought I should brighten up your day,” Mr. Zuma wrote. In a video of his own, he parodied the protesters, bursting into a characteristic laugh.