By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 13, 2008
PIETERMARITZBURG, South Africa, Sept. 12 -- A South African judge dismissed corruption charges against ruling party leader Jacob Zuma on Friday, likely clearing the path for the former freedom fighter to become the nation's president next year.
Zuma had faced 16 counts of fraud, racketeering, corruption and money laundering relating to a multimillion-dollar arms deal. In dismissing the case, High Court Judge Chris Nicholson said Zuma had been the target of a political scheme involving President Thabo Mbeki, his former ally turned bitter rival.
The ruling did not assess Zuma's guilt or innocence in the arms deal but upheld his claim that government prosecutors should have consulted him before charging him for a second time in December.
After the hearing, Zuma, 66, greeted thousands of jubilant supporters who had converged on the main square of this historic provincial capital for a rally and concert that posters around town promoted with the slogan "Hands Off Our President."
"It is a victory for our democracy," Zuma told the crowd in a speech, given mostly in Zulu, that explained the points of the ruling. "It is a victory for our justice system."
The ruling removed a barrier to Zuma's presidential ambitions and quelled threats of unrest by Zuma supporters, which had worried business leaders and investors who were already nervous about his ties to trade unions and communists in Africa's biggest economy. Although national prosecutors can refile charges, legal analysts said Friday's decision was a major blow to the case.
But political experts said the decision could deepen fissures in the ruling party, the African National Congress, if Zuma supporters increase their calls for Mbeki to step down. Zuma, beloved by South Africa's poor and working classes, took control of the ANC from Mbeki, a British-educated intellectual who is seen as remote, in a bitter party contest in December.
"Whatever standing Mbeki had in the ANC will be seriously damaged by this judgment," said Karima Brown, political editor of Business Day, a South African newspaper. "If he stays, what little political power he has left would be very denuded."
In a statement to the Reuters news service, Mbeki's office said: "The Presidency is certainly not aware of any fact that may have led to the conclusion that there was executive interference with the work of the National Prosecuting Authority in this matter."
The ANC, which has led South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, is expected to maintain its dominance in parliamentary elections next year, and its president typically becomes president of the country.
The judgment marked another milestone in Zuma's unlikely political comeback. Mbeki fired Zuma as the nation's deputy president in 2005 after Zuma's financial adviser was convicted of soliciting bribes from an arms dealer. Zuma also was charged that year, but the case was dismissed. In 2006, he was acquitted of rape charges in a trial in which he testified that he had had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman and then showered to prevent infection.
Zuma was charged again last December, days after winning the ANC presidency. The new charges sparked a rancorous national debate over judicial independence, as top ANC figures called for a "political solution" to the case and the head of the ANC Youth League vowed to "take up arms and kill" to ensure Zuma's exoneration. Critics saw such remarks as attempts to sidestep the judicial system, a widely respected institution of South Africa's young democracy.
But Nicholson, a human rights activist during the apartheid era, said he detected political machinations in the National Prosecuting Authority's decision not to prosecute Zuma along with his financial adviser, then doing so days after he won the ANC leadership. Nicholson, who called the decision "bizarre to say the least," said justice ministers had been involved in the decision to prosecute, making it "inconceivable that the president did not know."
"There is a ring of the works of Kafka in this," Nicholson said.
Given the judge's sharp words, legal experts said any renewed charges would probably be hobbled by politics.
"It's a question of, do you want to take on somebody who's going to be president?" said Michael Cowling, dean of the law faculty at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the province where the hearing was held. "The burden of the political meddling is simply going to be carried through this entire prosecution."
Zuma's supporters, who filled the modern, wood-paneled courtroom, erupted in cheers when Nicholson concluded. Outside, throngs of people who had come from nearby townships and faraway universities danced and waved banners emblazoned with Zuma's face.
"We have been vindicated!" Buti Manamela, head of the Young Communist League, a major Zuma constituency, told the crowd.
"We need Zuma to be our president," said Khetho Myende, 34, a slight and weary-looking municipal worker in a Zuma T-shirt. He and two friends had traveled three hours from their village and spent the night in the plaza outside the courthouse. "This case is finished. Today we're going to celebrate."
Zuma, who spoke last, exhorted audience members to respect the judiciary, then wrapped up by singing his trademark political anthem, "Bring Me My Machine Gun." Young men perched high in nearby trees for a better view swayed to the music.
"Your prayers reached where they were supposed to reach," Zuma told the crowd. "The truth prevailed."