By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
JOHANNESBURG, Jan. 12 -- South Africa's turbulent political landscape entered a new phase of uncertainty Monday as a court cleared the way for a corruption case against ruling party leader Jacob Zuma, who is expected to be elected the nation's president this spring.
The Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that a lower court had erred in its September decision to dismiss graft charges against Zuma on a technicality. The lower court decision, which also suggested that there had been a high-level political plot to prosecute Zuma, led the ruling African National Congress to oust Zuma rival Thabo Mbeki as president of South Africa.
Monday's decision raised the prospect that Zuma might be defending himself in court while campaigning for president in an election year when the dominant ANC faces its strongest challenge yet from a breakaway party. Analysts said revived charges could cost the ruling party votes but were unlikely to stop it from winning or Zuma from becoming president.
A spokesman for national prosecutors said Monday that Zuma is "once again regarded as a charged person." Zuma faces 16 counts of corruption, fraud, money laundering and racketeering stemming from a multibillion-dollar arms deal.
ANC officials, who argue that Zuma is the target of a scheme to keep him from the presidency, have said he is likely to file an appeal to the nation's highest court. He has been battling the charges for several years.
The party said in a statement Monday that Zuma, as party leader, would remain its presidential candidate even if he is facing trial. After a bitter battle, Zuma wrested control of the ANC from Mbeki at a party conference in December 2007.
"The ANC does not accept that a decision democratically taken by the ANC membership at its national conference be reversed on the basis of untested allegations," the ANC said in a statement.
In its ruling Monday, the appeals court slammed the lower court's decision, saying it "overstepped the limits of its authority" by straying from legal issues to suggest that there had been political meddling in the charges against Zuma, notably by Mbeki.
The lower court's ruling was "unfortunately subverted . . . by making gratuitous findings against persons who were not called to defend themselves; by failing to distinguish between allegation, fact and suspicion," Supreme Court judge Louis Harms said, reading the judgment, which was nationally televised, in the city of Bloemfontein. But, Harms said, the "damage has been done."
Days after the lower court's ruling, a top ANC committee stacked with Zuma loyalists voted to force out Mbeki, who then resigned. A splinter group of Mbeki supporters has since formed a new party to challenge the ANC, which won national elections in 2004 with nearly 70 percent of the vote.
The lower court ruling "had major political consequences," the breakaway party, called the Congress of the People, said in a statement Monday. "What was tragic was the opportunistic way the ruling African National Congress leadership abused it to settle its internal political battles . . . without any serious due consideration for national stability and international image of the country."
Monday's ruling came two days after the ANC launched its election campaign before more than 80,000 people in Eastern Cape province, a traditional ANC stronghold where the new party claims it has vast support.
Laying out its priorities for the next five years in an "elections manifesto," the ANC pledged to significantly boost state spending on health care, education, job creation and rural development, though it did not specify how it would pay for the investments. At the same time, the ANC also vowed not to veer far from the free-market policies that have delivered strong growth but drawn criticism from its Communist Party and trade union allies, as well as from the majority of South Africans who remain poor.
Zuma presented the party's program, which also included promises to crack down on government corruption. That drew a pointed response on Monday from South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.
Zuma "must answer these charges in court, and, if he is to honor the undertaking in the ANC's manifesto to step up the fight against corruption in its ranks, he should renounce his candidature for the presidency," Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille said.