New leader of ANC charged with bribery

Longstanding corruption case threatens Zuma's aspirations

December 29, 2007|By Robyn Dixon | Robyn Dixon,Los Angeles Times

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 yesterday 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, although 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 Zuma's home yesterday, the local television network SABC reported. Zuma wasn't there at the time.

A local 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 leadership 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 adviser, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of graft in a multibillion-dollar arms deal.

Shaik was convicted of soliciting a yearly 500,000-rand ($72,500) bribe on Zuma's behalf from the French arms company Thint. He was also convicted of paying Zuma 1.3 million rand ($187,500) to push his business interests.

The case against Zuma was thrown out of court on a technicality in 2006, but a court decision this year opened the way for charges to be laid again.

Zuma's supporters in the ANC see the charges as politically driven by Mbeki in order to block Zuma from the top job, a charge the president denies. Mbeki's supporters in the party say Zuma should not have been voted into the party leadership with the possibility of serious charges hanging over him.

Mbeki said 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 laid.

Mbeki also called on the international community and others to presume Zuma innocent unless proven guilty in court.

A popular former guerrilla fighter, Zuma was handing out presents yesterday to children at an annual Christmas party in his rural home village in KwaZulu-Natal. He would not answer questions from reporters about the charges.

The Zuma charges could 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.

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

The charismatic Zuma has wide support among the trade unions and other leftist groups, and his election as ANC president raised concern among critics that he would send the economy down a populist slide.

But he and Mbeki have gone to great lengths to assure there would be little change in the government's economic direction. Mbeki's market-friendly policies have led to an economic boom, though his detractors say the benefits have not trickled down to the majority of South Africans.

Robyn Dixon writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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