Corruption charges may haunt Zuma yet

A vindication, a temporary reprieve, an affirmation of South Africa’s justice system, an indictment of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA): the interpretations of Wednesday’s dismissal of corruption charges against former deputy president Jacob Zuma are many, and varied.

“We feel that the entire alliance ... has been vindicated by the judge’s decision to strike off the roll the case of corruption against Zuma,” Malesela Maleka, a spokesperson for the South African Communist Party (SACP), told IPS.

The SACP is united with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in a tripartite alliance that has become frayed in the course of proceedings against Zuma.

The unions, SACP and ANC Youth League have been vociferous in their support of the former deputy. Zuma is perceived as more sympathetic to the concerns of the poor than President Thabo Mbeki, criticised for having embraced business, conservative economic policies—and a centralised approach to decision-making.

After Zuma’s case was dismissed by the High Court in Pietermaritzburg, he travelled to Midrand, near Johannesburg, where he was fêted by delegates at the annual Cosatu congress.

But Jake Moloi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), a Pretoria-based think tank, issued a reminder that the former deputy’s legal woes were not entirely a thing of the past.

“It’s a temporary achievement. Striking the case from the court roll has only fortified and strengthened the chorus songs by his supporters.”

“To Zuma, too, it may appear to be a very big boost. But a cloud is hanging over him. One judge has already described him as having a ‘corrupt relationship’ with his former financial advisor. This perception is likely to remain there for a very long time.”

Prosecutors had applied for a postponement in Zuma’s case to finalise the indictment against him.

However, their ability to wrap up charges depended on the state having use of documents obtained during raids on the homes and offices of Zuma and his lawyer—the legality of which is now being challenged in court.

With the outcome of these challenges still in question, Judge Herbert Msimang ruled that prosecutors had not met legal requirements for them to show that necessary evidence would be at the state’s disposal by the date of adjournment.

In a critique of the state, he noted that “a precipitate decision” had been taken to prosecute Zuma, and also that “The implementation of that decision constituted the beginning of the end ... Thenceforth the state’s case limped from one disaster to another.”

But, while Wednesday’s decision let Zuma off the hook, it did not signal an end to future proceedings against him: the NPA may decide to charge him again.

Prosecutors want to bring the former deputy to book in connection with attempts by his former financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, to solicit yearly bribes for him of about R537 000 ($70 000) from the South African subsidiary of French arms company Thales—this in return for Zuma’s protection during an inquiry into a 1999 weapons procurement deal.

A case was brought against Zuma after Shaik was sentenced to 15 years in prison on several counts of fraud and graft—one of which related to bribes sought from Thales. Delivering his ruling in the matter in May and June last year, Judge Hilary Squires used the term “generally corrupt” to describe Zuma’s relationship with Shaik—who has appealed the verdict.

In 2003 the NPA, then under Bulelani Ngcuka, announced that it would not pursue corruption allegations against Zuma, on the grounds that the case against him could not be won. This position was altered after Shaik’s conviction, which also resulted in Zuma’s dismissal as deputy president. However, he retained his position as ANC deputy president.

In December, Zuma found himself charged with raping an HIV-positive family friend. He went on trial for the alleged crime in February this year and was acquitted three months later. Zuma admitted to having sex with his accuser, but said it was consensual.

He also disclosed that the sex had been unprotected, saying he had taken a shower afterwards to lessen chances that he would contract HIV in the course of the encounter.

The comment was roundly condemned by HIV/Aids activists—and even drew the wrath of Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu.

In a public lecture delivered after Zuma revealed that the sex with his accuser had been unprotected, Tutu remarked that he would “not be able to hold [his] head high if a person…were to become [his] president…who did not think it necessary to apologise for engaging in casual sex without taking proper precautions in a country that is being devastated by this horrendous HIV pandemic.”

The former deputy has linked charges against him to an alleged plot to prevent him from becoming South Africa’s next president, a post for which he was previously considered a leading candidate.

These views are echoed amongst Zuma supporters, hundreds of whom were present Wednesday outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court, dancing and chanting revolutionary slogans after Msimang’s verdict became known.

In the eyes of many, the dismissal of charges against Zuma could help him retake the lead in the race for the presidency; while Mbeki’s second and final term of office ends in 2009, the ANC will elect its next leader—and future presidential candidate—in 2007.

Still, Maleka remained circumspect when questioned about the prospects of having Zuma take over as head of state. “It’s an ANC matter. Of course, we are interested in the leader who will emerge out of the ANC conference [in 2007],” he noted.

Current deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has not declared her intention to succeed Mbeki. However, Mbeki’s recent comment that he preferred a woman to succeed him ruffled feathers in the Zuma camp.

When Mlambo-Ngcuka appeared at the Cosatu congress earlier this week she found herself confronted by delegates singing offensive songs about her husband, Bulelani Ngcuka—viewed as a key player in the alleged plot against Zuma despite his 2003 decision not to prosecute him.

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