With a deputy linked to corruption, S. African president under pressure

June 10, 2005|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - With a long-simmering political corruption scandal at a boil, all eyes are on President Thabo Mbeki as he weighs how to respond to a court ruling that some experts say is an important test of South Africa's 11-year-old democracy.

Mbeki is under pressure to act after a judge asserted that Deputy President Jacob Zuma had a "generally corrupt relationship" with a Durban businessman recently convicted of graft.

The question is: Will Mbeki - who appointed Zuma - fire him to demonstrate South Africa's intolerance for impropriety and its commitment to the type of good governance that lures foreign aid and investment?

Or will he bow to internal political demands and spare his deputy on the basis that business mogul Schabir Shaik - not Zuma - was the one on trial?

Mbeki's dilemma goes beyond political intrigue. It touches on fears that South Africa - rated the second-cleanest African country, after Botswana, by the international government watchdog Transparency International - could slide into a culture of corruption. And it underscores the notion that Mbeki's ruling African National Congress, once a hallowed liberation movement, is becoming more and more an ordinary political party.

Mbeki's decision is expected any day and could determine who will follow him in four years as the country's third president since the end of apartheid in 1994. Zuma, long seen as a top contender, has shown no willingness to quit, and his allies are marching in the streets to support him.

"Jacob Zuma is undoubtedly extremely popular. The president would have to think very long and hard before taking any drastic action to remove him from his position," said Patrick Craven, spokesman for the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Attention to the case has reached full froth in the press just as British Prime Minister Tony Blair pushes the United States to increase aid to Africa. President Bush has questioned giving more money to countries if it might be squandered by corrupt leaders.

"Are we seeing in South Africa the beginning of the kind of patrimonial, corrupt state that one has seen in so much else of independent Africa?" said Saul Dubow, a history professor at the University of Sussex in England and author of a book on the ANC.

Dubow said the answer is far from clear. But if Zuma stays, he said, it will frighten white South Africans who are nervous that their country could become another Zimbabwe. That country has spiraled downward since President Robert G. Mugabe began handing white-owned farms to ill-equipped, inexperienced black residents five years ago.

"When somebody is exposed as a corrupt politician in Europe or America, it tends to be contained within the circumstances of that individual and their followers," he said. In South Africa, "it seems to evoke much greater fear and anger on all sides."

Corruption, Dubow pointed out, is not new to South Africa. Graft was "endemic" in the apartheid era and led to the resignation of Prime Minister John Vorster in 1978. "We have to get away from the idea corruption is just a black way," he said.

The Shaik trial dominated public attention for weeks. In a verdict shown on live television, Judge Hillary Squires ruled that Shaik illegally paid Zuma nearly $200,000 over seven years for political favors. Squires also found Shaik guilty of arranging for a French weapons firm to pay Zuma a bribe to stymie a government investigation of the company.

On Wednesday, Squires sentenced Shaik, whose family helped finance the ANC's decades-long struggle against apartheid, to 15 years in prison.

In his defense, Shaik said the payments were harmless loans to a friend and donations to the Jacob Zuma Educational Trust. Testimony at trial depicted Zuma as having weak personal finance skills and relying on Shaik for his lavish lifestyle.

Zuma, 63, has not been charged with a crime. In 2003, the country's top prosecutor said that "prima facie" evidence linked him to corruption but that it would have been difficult to win a conviction.

Now, as several newspapers call for Zuma's exit, his supporters in the ANC's left flank and the trade unions - who think Zuma would pursue economic policies more beneficial to them - are sticking by him. They say he should remain in office unless he is found to have broken the law.

"The manner in which this has been dealt with has been grossly unfair," Zuma told a gathering of business leaders yesterday, according to wire reports. "The media have used this case for political reasons."

He also said he has never been allowed to defend himself in a courtroom against the allegations.

"In this country, we have a constitution that every citizen has a right that they must be taken to court, be tried and be heard, and at the end a judgment be made," he said. "That chance was never given to me."

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