|Jacob Zuma, newly elected president of the ruling African National Congress, at a seasonal event yesterday in Durban. His lawyer accused the country's National Prosecuting Authority and its elite FBI-style Scorpions unit of trying to smear Zuma. (associated press)|
S. Africa's Zuma to face corruption trial
Leader of ANC accused of taking arms-deal bribes
JOHANNESBURG - South African prosecutors yesterday ordered African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma to stand trial for corruption in August, a move that might put his presidential ambitions in jeopardy.
The ANC, the ruling party in the South African government, elected Zuma as its leader last week. Prosecuting him could deepen divisions within the party and derail his hopes of succeeding President Thabo Mbeki, who must step down in 2009.
Zuma, 65, has been accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from Thint, a French company, to stop an investigation into a multibillion-dollar arms deal with the government.
Mbeki fired Zuma as the deputy president in 2005 after Zuma's financial adviser was found guilty of trying to elicit the bribe.
Defense lawyer Michael Hulley accused the country's National Prosecuting Authority and its elite FBI-style Scorpions unit of trying to smear Zuma.
Hulley said in a statement yesterday that Zuma was charged with racketeering, money laundering, fraud, and corruption. The trial will begin on Aug. 14.
"These charges will be vigorously defended, in the context of the belief that the Scorpions have acted wrongly and with improper motive calculated to discredit Mr. Zuma and ensure that he play no leadership role in the political future of our country," Hulley said.
The prospect that the frontrunner to become South Africa's next president could be embroiled in a lengthy trial that might overlap with the next general election in 2009 could heighten investor concerns about the country's stability.
It also might distract the ANC-led government at a time when it is battling one of Africa's worst AIDS epidemics, high levels of violent crime, and demands by the black majority for a greater share of the growing economy.
Zuma recently told the BBC that he would step down as ANC leader if he were found guilty in a trial.
At a Christmas party held earlier in KwaZulu-Natal Province, Zuma handed out presents to hundreds of children. Asked about whether he knew indictment papers had been served on him, Zuma told SABC: "It's the first time I'm hearing that. I haven't heard of anything of that nature."
Zuma's indictment comes more than a year after an earlier corruption case against him collapsed on procedural grounds. The Scorpions continued to investigate allegations that Zuma accepted bribes and committed fraud in connection with the arms deal involving a Thint subsidiary.
The opposition Democratic Alliance party said it was time Zuma faced the charges and accepted the outcome of a trial.
"Jacob Zuma has long since demanded his day in court, and has repeatedly made public statements that a legal proceeding will exonerate him from all suspicions . . . yet he has done everything possible to delay and avoid the judicial process taking its course," the party said in a statement.
Zuma's supporters have described the case as a conspiracy by political enemies to deny him the presidency.
"What you have is an instruction by those in state power to change the outcome of the [leadership] conference," said Sipho Seepe, a political analyst and Mbeki critic. "This is simply sour grapes from the presidency."
Officials with the ANC and Scorpions were unavailable for comment when contacted last evening.
The ANC has been in power since the end of apartheid in 1994 and its electoral dominance virtually guarantees that its presidential candidate will become the country's next leader.
Mbeki, praised by business for pursuing centrist, investor-friendly policies, has vowed to continue leading the government despite being defeated in his bid to win a third term as ANC leader at this month's leadership congress.
Zuma, who was acquitted of rape charges in 2006, won about 60 percent of votes cast by delegates.
Prosecutors are expected at Zuma's trial to use some of the evidence they used to convict his former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, in 2005. Shaik was found guilty of trying to solicit a $72,500-a-year bribe for Zuma from the French company and jailed for 15 years.