Saturday, September 13, 2008



September 12, 2008
New York Times


A High Court judge here on Friday ruled that the government had mishandled the prosecution of Jacob Zuma, the leader of the governing party, setting aside the charges in a corruption case that has gripped this nation’s attention for years and clearing the way — at least temporarily — for Mr. Zuma to become South Africa’s next president.

African National Congress president Jacob Zuma emerged from Pietermaritzburg High Court after his corruption case was thrown out in South Africa Friday.
Judge Chris Nicholson’s decision was based on procedural failings, and was not a determination of Mr. Zuma’s guilt or innocence. But his two-hour opinion, transmitted over loudspeakers to a crowd of thousands of Zuma supporters outside the courthouse, also chastised the government of President Thabo Mbeki for a prosecution that showed signs of political meddling from high places.

Rather acidly, the judge said it was “most unfortunate” that the government had rekindled its case against Mr. Zuma last December within two weeks of the accused man’s victory over Mr. Mbeki for the party leadership of the governing African National Congress, suggesting a political motive behind the prosecution.

The long-running Zuma case has suggested several nightmare scenarios for this young democracy, where the A.N.C.’s dominance all but assures its candidate the presidency.

Among them: Would violence erupt if a criminal trial halted Mr. Zuma’s presidential ambitions? Would the rule of law be cynically swept aside by the A.N.C. if Mr. Zuma’s election preceded judicial resolution of the matter? Would investors shy away from a country whose government was in paralysis over alleged criminality?

Indeed, though Friday’s ruling somewhat defuses the uncertainty over South Africa’s political future, it does nothing to remove the hovering bad odor of allegations that Mr. Zuma and others had taken bribes related to the government’s purchase of $30 billion in arms during the late 1990s.

“Only a commission of inquiry can properly rid our land of this cancer that is devouring the body politic and the reputation for integrity built so assiduously after the fall of apartheid,” Judge Nicholson said.

The judge emphasized that his ruling determined nothing about Mr. Zuma’s involvement in corruption, only that he had been entitled to give his side of the story to government investigators before the prosecution was revived.

That fine point was lost on most of the jubilant crowd, many of them brought here aboard rented A.N.C. buses and bedecked with Zuma jackets and T-shirts that shielded them against the chill and drizzle.

“We all knew he was innocent, and if the government took him to trial, we were going to wage war against the judges,” said Musa Nene, 22, one of the celebrants, using threatening language that has become common lately.

In his ruling, the judge also referred to “dark mutterings emanating” from Mr. Zuma that “if he goes down” in the arms scandal, “others will follow.”

The judge wrote, “Like a blinded Samson he threatens to make sure the temple collapses with him,” adding that “the impression created is that” Mr. Zuma “has knowledge he will disclose if he is faced with conviction and sentence.”

But those barbs did little to dampen Mr. Zuma’s exuberant proclamations of victory. Dressed in a dark pinstriped suit, he broke into a Zulu war song as he greeted the crowd after leaving the courthouse. “It is a victory for the judiciary; it is a victory for our democracy; it is a victory for our justice system,” he exclaimed.

He allowed that the triumph might be short-lived. “Not that I’m saying it’s all over now,” he said parenthetically.

Indeed, the National Prosecuting Authority could again resurrect the case. Many who presume Mr. Zuma to be guilty will undoubtedly insist on it.

“We are still no closer to knowing whether Zuma is innocent or guilty of the corruption charges brought against him,” said Helen Zille, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance.

But the political fallout for further pursuing the case could be extreme. Mr. Zuma’s supporters have claimed that the prosecution was not only politically vindictive but also selectively aimed at their champion. In recent weeks, the boldest among them have said they are willing to kill and die for Mr. Zuma. Unveiled threats were made against the judiciary.

Parliament is already pushing through legislation to scrap the prosecuting authority’s elite investigating unit, the Scorpions, in response to A.N.C. anger over what many of its members regard as the unit’s persecution of Mr. Zuma.

Tlali Tlali, a spokesman for the prosecuting authority, said after Friday’s ruling, “We’ll have to go back to the office and study the decision of the court today and consider the options available to us.”