South African trade unionists and communists rallied on Friday to demand authorities drop corruption charges against former Deputy President Jacob Zuma.
Zuma is set to stand trial on Monday in a case that could wreck or resurrect his presidential hopes.
More than 1Ã‚Â 000 members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) chanted ”Our president in waiting” and ”Drop the charges” as they marched through downtown Durban under the watchful eye of a heavy police contingent.
Zuma, once considered the frontrunner to succeed President Thabo Mbeki, was fired last year after he was linked to a graft scandal involving a former aide and a French arms company. The popular Zulu politician was also charged separately with the rape of an HIV-positive woman, but acquitted earlier this year.
Zuma’s dismissal and the cases against him triggered furious protests, particularly from South Africa’s left, which has accused elements of the ruling African National Congress party of waging a smear campaign to prevent Zuma from succeeding Mbeki when his second term expires in 2009.
”There is a political conspiracy against Zuma,” said Zet Luzipo, Cosatu’s provincial secretary in KwaZulu-Natal, the traditional home of South Africa’s Zulu people. ”They never really had a case against Zuma and they must drop the charges.”
Zuma, who has retained his position as deputy president of the ANC, stands accused of having a generally corrupt relationship with his former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, and of accepting a bribe from French arms company Thint in exchange for using his influence in a government arms deal.
The trial will be held in Pietermaritzburg, about 70km north of Durban. Prosecutors, however, have filed a motion asking a judge to delay the case until next year to give them more time to prepare.
Zuma’s defence team wants the case dismissed or to proceed swiftly and is expected to respond to the prosecution’s motion on Monday. Thint’s lawyers also are expected to oppose the prosecution request for a delay.
A lengthy postponement could be a setback for Zuma, considered a candidate to take over from Mbeki as ANC leader at a party conference next year. Doing so would virtually assure him of becoming the country’s next president since the ANC has had an electoral stranglehold following the end of white minority rule in 1994.
Many ANC members want to see the case resolved soon as the uncertainty has led to tensions within the party and with allies in the powerful union movement and the SACP. Mbeki, who has blamed the media for fanning the perceived split, is seen by the left as too pro-business and tainted by the Zuma affair.
”Mbeki fired Zuma. How can we forgive him?” said Thande Mhike, an ANC supporter who watched the rally in Durban.
Zuma is expected to speak on Sunday at a rally in Pietermaritzburg marking the 85th anniversary of the SACP. His supporters plan to hold a vigil later that night on his behalf. — Reuters