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ANC's new leader charged with graft

The move could thwart ruling party chief Jacob Zuma's bid to become South Africa's president.

December 29, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Jacob Zuma, who swept to victory last week as leader of South Africa's ruling African National Congress party, was charged with corruption Friday, in a setback that could thwart his ambitions to rule the country.

The populist Zuma trounced South African President Thabo Mbeki in the ANC leadership contest even though the corruption case against him has been dragging on for years.

Officials of the National Prosecuting Authority announced last week that they had sufficient evidence to charge Zuma.

Zuma's lawyer, Michael Hulley, confirmed that charges were delivered to the ANC leader's home Friday, television network SABC reported. Zuma wasn't there at the time.

Hulley said the charges would be strongly contested, the Reuters news agency reported.

A radio station, Talk 702, reported that he had been charged with corruption, tax evasion and racketeering. It said the case would go to trial in August.

Zuma's party victory made him heir apparent for the South African presidency, with the ANC the dominant political force in the country. But a conviction on any of the charges would doom his chances.

Mbeki fired Zuma as South Africa's deputy 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 an annual $72,500 bribe on Zuma's behalf from the French arms company Thint. He also was convicted of paying Zuma $187,500 to push his business interests. Zuma was charged with corruption later that year.

The case against Zuma was thrown out on a technicality last year, but a court decision this year opened the way for charges to be filed again.

Zuma's supporters in the ANC see the charges as politically driven by Mbeki to block Zuma from the top job, an allegation the president denies.

Mbeki's supporters in the ANC say Zuma should not have been voted into the party leadership with the possibility of serious charges hanging over him.

Mbeki said at a news conference last week that prosecutors had not communicated with him on whether Zuma would be charged. He said the ANC would have to meet and discuss the implications of charges if they were filed.

The president also called on the international community and others to presume Zuma innocent unless proved guilty in court.

The Zuma charges may deepen tensions in the already divided ANC and destabilize Mbeki's government, with two centers of power -- the Cabinet and the ruling committee of the ANC -- vying for dominance. Some figures in the Zuma camp are privately threatening to oust Mbeki before his presidential term expires in 2009.

Prosecutors filed an affidavit two weeks ago outlining new evidence that bribes taken by Zuma were as much as three times higher than previously believed.

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

If Zuma is convicted, his ally and the new ANC deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, would be the likely successor to Mbeki in 2009. Under the South African Constitution, Mbeki is barred from a third term.

--

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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