SOUTH Africaâ€™s transport minister promised on Tuesday to return a luxury car he was given by contractors, in a controversy seen as a test of new President Jacob Zumaâ€™s promises to run a clean government.
Sworn in 10 days ago, Zuma is under close scrutiny because of his eight-year battle against corruption charges, which were dropped weeks before his ruling African National Congress won an election landslide last month.
Sbusiso Ndebele said that before deciding to give back the 1 million rand Mercedes Benz S500 he had consulted with Zuma and had been told there would be nothing wrong with keeping it as long as it was properly declared.
â€œI am not compelled to return it,â€ he told a news conference.
â€œWhat the president and office bearers say is that there is nothing wrong with it, absolutely … but I prefer to have it this way because itâ€™s just less hassle.â€
Thabo Masebe, spokesman for the presidency, said Ndebele had not breached ethics and there was no conflict of interest.
He added that the ministerâ€™s decision to return the car was his own, even if the discussion with Zuma might have influenced it.
South African media, opposition groups and trade unions had all urged the minister to return the vehicle and political analyst Adam Habib said the decision to do so suggested Zuma was concerned about accountability.
â€œIt clearly sends a signal that public opinion is important to this administration and I think thatâ€™s a good sign,â€ he said.
Zuma vowed to stamp out corruption during his election campaign and opposition parties also focused heavily on public accountability.
Corruption is a worry for South Africans and businesses alike on a continent where it has often held back growth.
In the decade to 2008, South Africa slipped from 32 to 54 on Transparency Internationalâ€™s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Zumaâ€™s opponents say his innocence is still in doubt because the charges against him were dropped after a judge ruled there had been political meddling in the case â€“â€“ and not because he was found not guilty.
The powerful Cosatu trade union federation, which helped Zumaâ€™s rise to power, welcomed the decision to return the car as well as two cows, which he had also been given by the group of contractors.
â€œThe decision gives us confidence that our new government led by President Jacob Zuma is determined to take a hard line against anyone in government, the public service and parastatal institutions who uses their position to enrich themselves,â€ it said.
Ndebele said he agreed to give back the car after discussion with his family.
He said the contractors had approached him before the election to set up a function in his honour, but he had been too busy then so the date was set for May 16.
â€œI was really shocked when they presented me with an S500 Mercedes Benz valued at about R1 million,â€ he said. â€“â€“ Reuters.