Charges Are Filed Against Zuma

Jacob Zuma became head of the ANC last week. The party's chief traditionally is its nominee to lead the nation, but a conviction would disqualify Zuma.
Jacob Zuma became head of the ANC last week. The party's chief traditionally is its nominee to lead the nation, but a conviction would disqualify Zuma. (Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 29, 2007

JOHANNESBURG, Dec. 28 -- Prosecutors filed corruption and other charges against ruling party leader Jacob Zuma on Friday, complicating his bid to become South Africa's next president.

Zuma's attorney, Michael Hulley, issued a statement Friday evening saying that the elite Scorpions law enforcement unit had delivered an indictment to Zuma's Johannesburg home. He was not there at the time.

In addition to corruption, the charges included fraud, racketeering and money laundering, said Hulley, who added that the trial was slated to begin Aug. 14. He said Zuma would fight the new case in court.

"These charges will be vigorously defended, in the context of the belief that the Scorpions have acted wrongly and with improper motive calculated to discredit Mr. Zuma and ensure that he play no leadership role in the political future of our country," Hulley said in his statement.

National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Tlali Tlali declined to confirm Hulley's announcement of new charges Friday, saying, "We're not commenting on that today." But fresh charges had long been expected, with the authority's acting director, Mokotedi Mpshe, saying last week that they were "imminent."

"The investigation, with the evidence we have now, points to a case that can be taken to court," Mpshe told Radio 702 last week, hours before Zuma made his inaugural speech as president of the African National Congress, South Africa's ruling party.

Friday's charges are the latest in a series of legal troubles for Zuma, most related to a 1999 arms deal worth billions of dollars. President Thabo Mbeki fired him as the country's deputy president in 2005 after Zuma's financial adviser was convicted of soliciting a bribe on his behalf from a French arms dealer.

Prosecutors filed corruption charges against Zuma soon after he was fired, but a judge dismissed that initial round of charges on procedural grounds. In 2006, Zuma was found not guilty of raping a family friend.

His political comeback gathered force during the rape trial. Thousands of supporters often gathered outside the Johannesburg courthouse where he was being tried, singing, dancing and waving signs.

Zuma, whose populism appeals to rank-and-file members of the ANC, became party leader at the national conference last week, soundly defeating Mbeki, whom many view as aloof and out of touch.

The party's president traditionally has become its candidate for president of the nation. But a conviction on any of the charges filed Friday would disqualify Zuma from holding high political office in South Africa. It would also probably prompt calls for him to step down as leader of the ruling party, allowing his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, to take over.

Zuma contends that he is the victim of a political vendetta. Hulley said in his statement: "The timing of the service of the indictment is calculated to quickly redress the popular support and call to leadership of the ANC which Mr. Zuma's election so obviously demonstrates. This lends credence to the long held view that the Scorpions are influenced and their prosecution informed by political considerations."

The ruling party passed a resolution at its conference last week calling for the disbanding of the Scorpions, the unit that has taken the lead in pursuing legal charges against Zuma.

Some of Zuma's supporters have vowed to organize mass demonstrations outside any courthouse where he is tried.

Many analysts have said that any prosecution of Zuma, especially if it resulted in a conviction, would amount to a major test of South Africa's independent democratic institutions and the rule of law in the continent's most economically powerful nation.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company