Former deputy president Jacob Zuma’s corruption case was struck off the roll by the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Wednesday, boosting the popular politician’s bid to succeed President Thabo Mbeki.
High Court Judge Herbert Msimang said the state’s case against Zuma “went from one disaster to another” and had failed to follow proper procedure.
“There were clear guidelines which should have informed their decision to proceed. They ignored those guidelines at their own peril,” Msimang said.
“This is the chickens coming home to roost.”
The judge’s ruling stopped short of completely dismissing the case, however, and prosecutors hinted they intended to refile charges at a later date.
“The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) is obviously disappointed with this decision, but wishes to stress that it does not detract from the strength of the state’s case or the ability of the NPA to bring the matter to trial when the various issues delaying the trial have been resolved,” NPA spokesperson Makhosini Nkosi said in a statement supplied to the Mail & Guardian Online.
“In view of the unprecedented public interest around this matter, and its potential to affect public confidence in our criminal justice system, the NPA firmly believes that the case should be decided on its merits, and not on the basis of procedural technicalities,” said the statement.
Hundreds of Zuma supporters gathered outside the court broke out in cheers and dancing on news of the ruling, which was seen as a major political boost for Zuma who has made little secret of his hopes to succeed Mbeki in 2009.
Inside the courtroom Zuma supporters — some of them dressed in traditional Zulu dress — leaped to their feet and started chanting “my president”.
Zuma (64) was fired from his job as South Africa’s deputy president last year after a judge found he had a “generally corrupt” relationship with his financial adviser Schabir Shaik.
Prosecutors later filed charges against Zuma himself, accusing him of receiving bribes from French arms company Thint in connection with a controversial arms deal.
Msimang’s decision to throw out the charges also applied to the state’s case against Thint.
Conspiracy and vendetta
South Africa’s rand slipped on news of Msimang’s decision, moving to 7,4125 to the dollar from 7,36 to the dollar earlier in the day.
Economic analysts, along with many educated South Africans, say the prospect of a Zuma presidential campaign could be bad news for South Africa’s international image, built in part on a reputation for a strong stance against corruption.
Zuma has denied any wrongdoing and called the charges part of a conspiracy to thwart his path to the presidency, throwing the African National Congress (ANC) into some of its worst internal turmoil since it guided South Africa from apartheid to democracy in 1994.
Zuma remains deputy president of the ANC and has been rallying support among grassroots members as well as left-wing allies of the party including South Africa’s major labour unions, Communist Party, and the ANC’s own youth wing.
While the judge’s ruling was a significant victory for Zuma’s legal team, it also means that the case will continue to dog him as prosecutors mull their options on refiling charges.
Zuma has made little secret that he considers himself as a candidate to succeed Mbeki, a decision which will be made when the ruling ANC meets to elect a new leader in December 2007.
Sipho Seepe, a political analyst who frequently criticises Mbeki, said the judge’s ruling marked an important turning point in what is shaping up to be a battle for the future of the ANC.
“Obviously this judgement frees Zuma, and all those people who weren’t sure if he was guilty will now throw their weight behind him,” he said.
“Politically Mbeki is no match for Zuma. Mbeki may have state power but Zuma has the political power.”
Msimang said Zuma had to be treated the same as any other person, irrespective of his position in the country.
“His standing in the community will not alter his position in the eyes of the law.”
Msimang said he had needed to take the “spirit of the Constitution” into account when making a judgement.
He pointed out that the prosecution’s case depended on the outcome of appeals against controversial search-and-seizure raids, when documents were seized from Zuma’s lawyers and from Zuma.
Msimang said Zuma had suffered social prejudice which “closely resembles punishment that should only be handed to a convicted person”.
He said the state’s decision to prosecute was “anchored” on unsound principles.
The state’s case “limped from one disaster to another” and it should have investigated further before charging Zuma. He accused the state of failing to take into account the legal challenges to the search-and-seizure raids.
The state was “taking chances that the trial court would come to their rescue to admit such evidence”.
Msimang said the state did not “need to take chances”.
‘That’s the end of that’
Executive director of the Human Sciences Research Council, Adam Habib, told the M&G Online that in the short term, the judgement would strengthen the Zuma faction within the ANC.
“He already has quite a bit of local support.”
In the longer term, said Habib, it depended on whether the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) decided to pursue prosecution.
“It could cause a situation where the election race will get much more complicated.”
“If I was a high ranking ANC official, I would be very worried at this point.”
Zuma’s attorney, Michael Hulley, told the M&G Online that he was “obviously exceptionally pleased” with the decision.
“We feel that Zuma was vindicated by the judgement,” Hulley said.
He said that although it was within the prerogative of the NPA to decide whether they wanted to resume charges against Zuma, they “should be well advised to study the judgement”.
“The judge summed up the case saying ‘that’s the end of that’, and that is how we feel … that it’s the end of that,” Hulley said.
Political analyst Professor Susan Booysen, from Wits University’s Graduate School for Public and Development Management, told the M&G Online that “things are going to unfold in a spectacular way”.
“Some hurdles have been cleared,” she said, and Zuma could be on “a relatively smooth track in running for dual candidacy”.
Booysen said that the easier part of Zuma’s journey was now behind him.
“It’s an easier battle from the sidelines, now all the focus will be on him.”
Booysen said the support and backing Zuma had received from groups like the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) came with great expectations on their part.
And “so far he [Zuma] has not given evidence that his policies are profoundly different [from Mbeki’s],” she said.
With both Mbeki and Zuma still in the running for the 2009 election, Booysen said it was impossible to tell where the situation would eventually lead.
“I don’t think he [Zuma] will withdraw; the ANC will try to mediate something.
“I cannot envisage a situation where one will be president of the movement and one president of the country,” she said.
Wits University Professor Stephen Tuson, an expert in criminal law, said just because Zuma’s case had been struck from the roll did not mean he had been acquitted.
“The law is very clear,” Tuson said, “it was struck off the role because the judge found an unreasonable amount of postponements.”
“The prosecution is entitled to proceed with the case, as long as they have the complete charge sheet,” he said, “so that he [Zuma] knows what he has to answer to.”
The judge denied a further postponement, and the prosecution cannot be reinstated without the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Tuson said.
“A high level of consent is needed” to resume the case, he told the M&G Online, but “if all is in order, the state can pursue the matter”.
The crowd at the annual congress of Cosatu jumped in glee and sang in celebration at the news of the case’s dismissal.
General secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said there was “a difference between rumouring and actual justice”.
“For today justice prevailed,” said Vavi. The crowd roared in approval.
The congress was in the process of honouring former African National Congress Women’s League president Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who was hugged by Cosatu president Willie Madisha.
Vavi said: “We want Jacob Zuma here.”
ANC accepts ruling
The African National Congress said shortly after the announcement that it accepted Msimang’s ruling.
“We believe that due process has taken its course and we therefore accept the ruling,” said national spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama.
The Democratic Alliance cautioned against early triumphalism on the part of Zuma’s supporters.
“Judge Herbert Msimang’s decision today that the Jacob Zuma corruption case could be struck from the roll is not the end for the corruption case; it is a temporary reprieve rather than absolution,” Sheila Camerer, the official opposition’s justice spokesperson said.
Camerer said the prosecution team could bring the case back to court at a later stage, but needed to iron out some difficulties first.
“From a legal point of view, too much triumphalism on the part of Mr Zuma’s supporters would be misplaced,” said Camerer.
Camerer said however the political implications of the ruling were enormous because in the “court of public opinion” Zuma’s claims of victimisation had been given “judicial respectability”.
This would make it difficult to re-open the case.
United Democratic Movement (UDM) president Bantu Holomisa said the judge had not done Zuma any favours, and that he still had a cloud hanging over his head.
He said Zuma’s supporters seemed not to recognise his continuing run of misfortune.
“And now that his day in court was about to dawn the case has been struck from the roll again.
“It looks like Zuma is back to square one, with the cloud still hanging over his head,” Holomisa said.
“The judge has not done Zuma any favours. His political opponents will continue to say that he has many unanswered allegations against his name and that he continues to escape prosecution on technicalities.”
Fundraising for the ‘free man’
Barnabas Xulu, spokesperson for the Friends of Jacob Zuma Trust, said he wanted to know how much the state had spent on the trial.
He said if the state extended the trial, the fund would have to raise money in order to hire “expertise”, he told M&G Online.
Xulu said that even though Zuma was “a free man”, the organisation would still continue raising funds to pay for his lawyers.
IFP questions prosecution readiness
The Inkatha Freedom Party on Wednesday asked why the state was seemingly not ready to conduct its case against Zuma three years and one month after former Scorpions head Bulelani Ngcuka said there was a prima facie case against him.
“So the question is why is the case not ready to proceed,” said the party’s justice spokesperson Koos van der Merwe.
“This is judicial nonsense. If they [the state] have a case against Zuma they should have prosecuted him and if they don’t have a case they should let him go because he has suffered enough,” said Van der Merwe.
African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) leader Reverend Kenneth Meshoe said he was not surprised that the case had been struck off the roll.
“For years we’ve been saying the government must improve the investigative capacity of the police,” he said.
“There are too many serious cases that have been thrown out of court for lack of sufficient evidence.
“So the fact that [this case] was thrown out of court today [Wednesday] will be a wake-up call for government.”
If there was a problem with capacity, the authorities should “humble themselves” and seek expertise from other countries.
Meshoe said Zuma himself had in the past said he wanted to be cleared by a court of law.
Judge Msimang had however not examined the merits of the case.
“So if Zuma truly wants to be cleared … I think it would be fair to say, let the case be properly heard.
“But before that happens government must pull up its socks and do proper investigations.”
Winnie says prayers for Zuma answered
An ecstatic Winnie Madikizela-Mandela sang a song at the Cosatu national congress on Wednesday indicating that the prayers of the people “have been answered” following the court decision.
“We must thank the Lord now because they [the prayers] have been answered,” she told the crowd, who erupted in song. â€’ Sapa, I-Net Bridge, Reuters
- A former member of African National Congress’s military wing, Zuma rose through the ranks to become head of intelligence in the party, a post that gave him leverage over allies and opponents alike. Like former South African president Nelson Mandela, he was imprisoned on Robben Island for conspiring to overthrow white rule, spending 10 years in jail before going into exile.
- Earthy and approachable, the ethnic Zulu from KwaZulu-Natal has earned respect as a peacemaker at home, mediating between the ANC and the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party at the height of violence in the early 1990s to head off a possible civil war. Zuma’s position in the ANC strikes a tribal balance in an organisation perceived to be dominated by leaders from the Xhosa tribe of Mandela and Mbeki.
- Zuma received no formal schooling. He was nevertheless once the leading contender to replace Mbeki as president in 2009 and is hugely popular among the ANC rank and file and its leftist and trade union allies. He is 64 and was formerly married to South Africa’s current foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
- Zuma had said that given the serious nature of the allegations against him he was suspending participation in leading ANC bodies but would not step down as the party’s deputy president — the one platform from which he could still launch a presidential bid