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S. Africa's Zuma may face charges

Judicial official says the new leader of the ruling party and presidential hopeful could be tried on corruption counts.

December 21, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

POLOKWANE, SOUTH AFRICA — A top prosecutor said Thursday that South Africa's controversial new president-in-waiting, Jacob Zuma, could be charged with corruption within weeks, an action that could threaten Zuma's bid to take over the country's leadership.

The acting director of the National Prosecuting Authority, Mokotedi Mpshe, said there was enough evidence to prosecute him on corruption charges, stealing Zuma's thunder just before his first public speech as newly elected leader of the African National Congress, the country's ruling party. A conviction would dash his presidential ambitions.

Despite the legal cloud, Zuma took to the stage in the final hours of the ANC's national conference, where he was voted in as party leader this week, swaying with both arms raised and singing a victorious rendition of his trademark song, "Bring Me My Machine Gun."

In a news conference later, Zuma repeatedly sidestepped questions about the possibility of criminal charges being filed.

"I am not charged. There is no charge. Why should I discuss speculation about something that doesn't even exist? I would not be allaying fears, I would be raising fears."

He said there was no strategy in the ANC to deal with the possibility that he could be charged and face a lengthy court case.

If Zuma were convicted, his ally and the new ANC deputy leader, Kgalema Motlanthe, would step up as heir apparent to the country's president, Thabo Mbeki, whose term ends in 2009.

Mbeki, formerly a close ally, sacked Zuma as the country's vice president in 2005 after Zuma's former financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of graft in a multibillion-dollar arms deal. Shaik was convicted of soliciting a $72,500-a-year bribe on Zuma's behalf from the French arms company Thint.

Shaik was also convicted of paying Zuma to push Shaik's business interests. Zuma later was charged, but the case was thrown out of court on a technicality; however, a court judgment this year opened the way for charges to be filed again.

A new court affidavit was filed last week outlining evidence that bribes taken by Zuma were as much as three times higher than previously thought. Zuma's legal team has fought to exclude some evidence in the case, while he mounted his campaign for party president.

His supporters insist that the charges were cooked up by his enemies to block him from the top ANC job.

In an unrelated case, Zuma was acquitted of rape last year.

One Mbeki supporter from the president's home town of Dutywa in Eastern Cape province, Victor Stofile, 42, a local councilor and conference delegate, said the renewed possibility of charges was problematic for the ANC.

"You can't take a person who has this doubt hanging over him and make him president of the ANC," he said.

In his speech to delegates, Zuma called for unity and sought to mend fences with Mbeki, his rival for the party presidency, referring to him as a friend, a comrade and a brother.

Zuma insisted that there was no bad blood between supporters of the two leaders who fought over every party position.

The Zuma camp, however, omitted the finance minister, Trevor Manuel, and the head of policy in Mbeki's presidency, Joel Netshitenzhe, from its ticket for the ANC's governing body, the national executive committee.

Zuma repeatedly brushed off questions about why Manuel, who is seen internationally as the linchpin of South Africa's economic stability, was not on the ticket. He said Manuel had done a good job of achieving fiscal discipline.

But perceptions that Manuel is being eased out by the Zuma camp and might be excluded from a future Zuma Cabinet will fuel unease in the business community and among investors about the country's economic direction.

Zuma's allies in the Communist Party and the unions complain that under Manuel, the government's policies have been too pro-business. Zuma, for his part, denied Thursday that there was concern in the business community about his links to the unions and the Communist Party, while pledging more consultation with his allies.

There were already signs emerging Thursday of a future clash between the two rival centers of power -- the ANC and the Mbeki government. One of the first battles is likely to be fought over the board of the state-owned network, the South African Broadcasting Corp., which is perceived as being supportive of Mbeki and the government.

Another issue will be the future of the Scorpions, the corruption task force that operates within the National Prosecuting Authority and has pursued high-profile investigations of Zuma and others. As well as electing Zuma, the ANC national conference voted to urge the government to dismantle the Scorpions and move a corruption and graft unit into the police force.

He has been reported as supporting a renewal of debate on the return of the death penalty, but denied raising the issue. However, he said that if the people of South Africa wanted to debate the issue, they should.

Before being voted in as leader, Zuma had hinted at a different approach than Mbeki's "quiet diplomacy" on Zimbabwe -- refraining from criticism of human rights abuses in order to engage the government of President Robert Mugabe.

But Zuma pledged to continue the quiet diplomacy, saying the targeted sanctions of Western countries against Mugabe and other Zimbabwean officials had achieved nothing.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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