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Charges Dismissed for S. Africa's Zuma

Judge faults prosecutors in the case of alleged corruption. The turn of events may put new life into the popular figure's presidential aspirations.

September 21, 2006|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A High Court judge dismissed corruption charges Wednesday against Jacob Zuma, opening the way for the controversial former deputy president to make a bid for the leadership of the ruling African National Congress next year and the presidency in 2009.

Zuma's political ambitions suffered a blow last year when he was dismissed as deputy president, then faced corruption charges and later a rape charge. He has maintained all along that he was the victim of a conspiracy by figures desperate to undermine him.

His acquittal on the rape charge in May and the dismissal Wednesday of corruption charges by Judge Herbert Msimang of the Pietermaritzburg High Court set the scene for a divisive leadership battle in the ANC. Zuma recently has criticized the government for its policies on HIV/AIDS and the economy and has accused it of centralizing too much power under President Thabo Mbeki.

Speaking after the judge's decision, Zuma blamed the media for sentencing him before his trial.

"I said I was innocent, I am still saying I am innocent, I will repeat it tomorrow," he told supporters. "The judge has spoken and said those who charged me were speculating."

His supporters greeted the decision with jubilation. Prosecutors did not say immediately what their next step would be, but they could bring a fresh indictment against him over the corruption allegations.

The former deputy president was charged with taking payments of nearly $190,000 in return for helping get government approval of a French arms deal. The charge came after Judge Hilary Squires last year found that Zuma had a "generally corrupt relationship" with a friend and financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, who was convicted of corruption in the arms deal and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

After the judge's comments, Mbeki sacked Zuma as deputy president.

But Msimang on Wednesday dismissed the charges against Zuma after the prosecution sought extra time to prepare its case, the latest of several delays. Rejecting that application, he said the prosecution case had "limped from one disaster to another."

Zuma, who draws his support from the left wing of the ANC, its youth league, the trade union movement and the South African Communist Party, is a charismatic figure. Before the charges were filed against him, he was seen by many as the country's most popular politician because of his common touch and ability to articulate the concerns of voters.

Sheila Meintjes, senior lecturer in political science at the University of the Witwatersrand, said Zuma had a chance for a big political comeback.

"He really wants that position," she said of the ANC leadership post. "Zuma is a very popular figure. He is a completely charming and personable man. When he speaks, he's very appealing. He has a common touch that really appeals to ordinary people."

But she said he had a long way to go to get the top ANC job.

South Africa's president is chosen by Parliament and usually is the leader of the majority party. The ANC leader is chosen by a secret ballot of delegates at the party's national congress.

Meintjes said the leadership struggle highlighted the anger in the ANC over Mbeki's centralized decision-making, but she downplayed any possibility of a split.

The bitter divisions over the leadership came to light during the rape trial when the complainant testified that Zuma's supporters had urged her to drop the charges. They said the case would hurt his chances of winning the party leadership and pose the threat that Mbeki or a member of his camp would continue to lead the party, she testified.

But some analysts see lingering damage from the rape charge, after Zuma acknowledged that he had had sex without a condom with a woman who was HIV-positive and half his age. He provoked widespread criticism with his testimony that he had showered afterward in the mistaken belief that doing so would reduce the risk of being infected.

Rapule Tabane, political correspondent with the weekly Mail and Guardian, said that though Zuma had support within the tripartite alliance that governs South Africa -- the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party -- his admissions during the trial made him look foolish and damaged his broader popularity.

"Inside the alliance, there's a view that he's a very understanding person; he's not aloof like the current president; he would be most likely to listen to the voice of the poor," Tabane said. "Outside the alliance, he's not respected at all; in fact, he's quite disliked. Outside of politics, people don't want him to be president."

Ebrahim Fakir, senior researcher with the Center for Policy Studies, a Johannesburg think tank, said it was not clear Zuma would get the top ANC job, given that prosecutors could bring a new indictment or other candidates might come forward.

"There are so many layers of leadership within the ANC that any number of leaders could emerge," he said.

If Zuma did win the ANC leadership at the national party congress in December 2007, he and his supporters might try to push Mbeki out as the country's president before the 2009 election, Fakir said. He added that though businesspeople are wary of what a leftist-backed Zuma presidency would mean, he might not usher in a major policy shift.

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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