Former South African president Jacob Zuma claimed he is the victim of a conspiracy as he testified for the first time in front of a judicial commission investigating allegations of massive corruption during his nine years in power.
In a rambling opening statement, Mr Zuma told the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture that the hearing was the culmination of a plot hatched by “foreign spies” who had attempted to discredit him since the early 1990s.
"This commission was set up to bring me here and to get something on me," he said at the hearing in Johannesburg. "I have been vilified, alleged to be the king of corrupt people" he said.
While he did not name the intelligence agencies, a senior ANC official close to Mr Zuma told The Daily Telegraph that he meant American and British spies working in collaboration with apartheid-era South African intelligence operatives.
Carl Neihaus, a former political prisoner and Zuma loyalist, claimed UK and US agencies had plotted against Mr Zuma to “oppose, change, or delay radical economic transformation in South Africa.”
Mr Zuma’s presidency ended in scandal in 2018 amid allegations that his family had conspired to use the machinery of state to advance the interests of Ajay, Atul, and Rajesh “Tony” Gupta, three Indian-born brothers who controlled one of South Africa’s largest business empires.
Public officials and investigative journalists have alleged that the corruption amounted to effective capture of the state by private interests, with the Guptas exercising de-facto control of ministries, public utilities, the state broadcaster and even the national airline in a scheme that cost the country tens of billions of dollars.
Mr Zuma and the Guptas deny wrongdoing, claiming that the allegations are politically motivated.
In his testimony on Monday, Mr Zuma claimed his predecessors, including Nelson Mandela, were also friendly with the Guptas, and suggested he was being singled out for persecution.
"What is wrong with the relationship? Nothing is wrong. Many other people are friends with these comrades. They are not the issue - the issue is Zuma," he said.
Facing questions from Paul Pretorius, the senior advocate, Mr Zuma said he did not remember 27 director generals of government ministries writing to him in 2016 requesting an investigations into the Guptas' influence.
He said he could not recall instructing Themba Maseko, a former head of the government communications service, to help the Guptas.
Mr Maseko earlier told the commission that the Guptas in turn told him to direct the government's R600m (£35 million) advertising budget to a newspaper and television channel they owned.
The scandal has profoundly damaged the reputation of the ruling ANC. Mr Zuma was resigned as president in February 2018 rather than face a vote of no confidence in parliament. He set up the commission under pressure from rivals in the ANC in his last weeks in office.
Cyril Rhamaphosa, his successor as president and party leader, has promised to clean up corruption in the party and the country during presidential elections in May.
The case has also drawn in major mutlinational companies, with ethical shortcomings found at the accountancy firm KPMG and the management consultants McKinsey and Bain and Co.
In 2017 The British PR firm Bell Pottinger collapsed into administration after it emerged it had been hired by the Guptas to run a publicity campaign to inflame racial tensions.
Mr Zuma, an ethnic Zulu, remains popular in his home region of Kwazulu Natal, and supporters demonstrated outside the commission building in central Johannesburg on Monday.
There was a heavy police presence but no violence.
Mr Zuma is expected to continue his testimony over then next four days.