JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- In a decision that could affect South African presidential politics, a judge dismissed corruption charges yesterday against former Deputy President Jacob Zuma.
Although prosecutors say they could refile charges, the sharply worded dismissal - coupled with Zuma's acquittal in May on rape charges - vaults him back in the running to succeed Thabo Mbeki in 2009 as the third president since apartheid ended in 1994.
"He comes out of this encouraged, emboldened, much stronger," said political analyst Sipho Seepe, a professor at Henley Management College. "If nothing happens in the legal arena, you have somebody who is likely to become president."
Zuma, a charismatic leader of the anti-apartheid movement, greeted throngs of cheering supporters outside the Pietersburg High Court.
"I said I was innocent, I am still saying I am innocent, I will repeat it tomorrow," he said, before singing an old anti-apartheid song, "Bring Me My Machine Gun."
The 64-year-old Zuma enjoys deep support among trade unions and the ruling African National Congress party's left wing.
There was jubilation at a meeting of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, where Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, former wife of former President Nelson Mandela, sang that prayers "have been answered."
Judge Herbert Msimang criticized the prosecution's case, which he said went "from one disaster to another."
He noted that the case relied on files taken from Zuma's attorney that are still subject to an appeal that they were seized illegally.
The government had alleged that Zuma took bribes from his former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, and was aware of Shaik's efforts to secure a $70,000 yearly bribe from a French arms company in a weapons deal.
Shaik was convicted last year and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The judge in the case said Shaik and Zuma had a "generally corrupt" relationship.
Fired by Mbeki
Mbeki fired Zuma as deputy president to "strengthen our democracy." But Zuma remained deputy president of the ANC. Charges that he raped a 31-year-old family friend dented his support but only until he was acquitted.
Many of his backers believe there is an Mbeki-led conspiracy to end Zuma's political career.
In December next year, the ANC will elect a new leader to replace Mbeki.
Deciding next president
That decision will determine the country's next president because the ANC has a huge majority in Parliament and the top party's leader also becomes president of the country.
Some analysts cautioned that Zuma's troubles are not necessarily over.
"A lot of things have to happen before we can say it's a shoo-in he'll be the next president," said Judith February of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. "Will he be recharged? The state has done so much work. Are they just going to let it go? Chances are they might not."