S. Africa: Outrcy as Zuma Charges Dropped

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Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

South African ruling party leader Jacob Zuma

By dropping corruption charges against Jacob Zuma on Monday, South Africa's prosecutors have removed the legal jeopardy facing South Africa's president-in-waiting — but won't have dissolved the cloud of suspicion that hangs over the leader of the African National Congress(ANC). Zuma, whose party is expected to easily win the April 22 general election, has long insisted that he wanted to clear his name in court, and he may claim vindication from the decision. He has insisted that the charges were brought as part of a political conspiracy orchestrated by former President Thabo Mbeki, the arch- rival he ousted in a bruising internal ANC political battle late last year. But Monday's decision has left a widespread impression that it was political pressure from within the ruling party that resulted in the case being dropped.

The case, which the prosecutors had previously maintained was of sufficient legal merit to be decided by a court, concerns Zuma's alleged role in a controversial 1990s arms scandal that has dogged South African politics for years. He had been charged with soliciting bribes from the French arms company Thint, and was facing a number of counts of corruption, fraud, racketeering and tax evasion. He has denied all the charges. (See pictures of anti-immigrant violence in South Africa

But as the country approaches its most important election since 1994, pressure has mounted from Zuma's supporters within the ANC for a "political solution" to be found which would allow Zuma to assume the presidency without facing an embarrassing trial. The National Prosecuting Agency received representations from Zuma's lawyers behind closed doors in recent weeks, and issued a statement saying that "additional information [supplied] by Mr Zuma's lawyers... has necessitated further investigation, verification and careful consideration." The content of those representations has yet to be revealed.

After examining all of the evidence against Zuma, acting national prosecutions director Mokotedi Mpshe announced at a press conference on Monday that it was "neither possible nor desirable" to proceed with their case against Zuma. Zuma's supporters have argued that he would not receive a fair trial, and that to even conduct such a trial would not be in the public interest. Zuma had previously threatened that, if called to stand trial, he would expose further evidence implicating other high-level government officials in the arms deal, which has never been thoroughly investigated.

Critics see the move as further evidence of the party of Nelson Mandela straying from the moral high ground it once occupied as the party that led the fight against apartheid. Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, once a hero of the anti-apartheid movement who has turned into a vociferous critic of the ANC, incurred the party's wrath last week by challenging Zuma's fitness to rule. "If he is innocent, as he claims, he must let the courts prove it," he told an audience in Durban last week. The ANC, in a statement, blasted Tutu by accusing him of "blasphemy" and taking a "narrow view" of South Africa.

As politically expedient as the decision will be for Zuma, the decision is seen by many in South Africa and abroad as questioning the credibility not only of South Africa's ruling party, but of the country's institutions. Monday's announcement follows a spate of criminal justice moves that have smacked of political interference, including the early release from prison, on medical parole, of Schabir Shaik, a former close associate of the ANC leader who had been convicted of channeling payments to Zuma from arms companies.

Opposition parties will be hoping the decision may also pull some political support away from the ANC. Mbeki's ouster last year prompted a number of leading officials in the party to break away and form the rival Congress of the People (COPE) party, which is unlikely to best the ANC, but could deny it the two-thirds majority it would need if it sought to amend the constitution. On Monday, COPE joined a chorus of outrage against the decision, calling it a guarantee that the country's new president would "forever be branded a criminal suspect in the eyes of much of the nation and the world."