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Zuma's corruption charges to impact South African politics

There is big news out of South Africa today. The courts have reinstated corruption charges against Jacob Zuma, the man widely expected to become the country’s next president.

This decision highlights the tumult in South Africa’s post-apartheid politics. The 16 charges against Zuma, include racketeering, corruption and money laundering of about 4 million rand ($400,000), show how the legal system has played a central role in politics. The charges also show the remarkable resilience of the charismatic Zuma.

As recently as 2006, it looked like Zuma’s political career was over. He was standing trial for rape and faced a separate trial on the corruption charges. He was forced to resign as the country’s deputy president by then President Thabo Mbeki.

Yet when Zuma attended the lengthy rape trial, about 4,000 supporters stood in front of the courthouse and greeted him with adulation. The demonstrations got uglier: At one point, the crowd burned an effigy of the woman who pressed the charges, shouting “Burn the bitch”.

I attended that rape trial in Johannesburg and heard the lurid and damaging testimony, particularly Zuma’s admission that he knowingly had sex with an HIV-positive woman without using a condom. He told the court that he took a shower afterwards to protect himself.

Yet on May 8, 2006, Zuma was acquitted of the rape because the woman pressing the charges was found to have a history of making similar false accusations.

Zuma’s not guilty verdict set off pandemonium in the normally staid courtroom. Men wearing Zulu leopard skins jumped up on the benches singing “My President”, a song praising Zuma. Cheering, singing and dancing broke out among the thousands outside the courthouse, too.

I saw Karima Brown, the political editor of Business Day newspaper whose acute analysis I value.

“Jacob Zuma is back. This poses a serious dilemma for the ANC," she said, referring to the African National Congress leadership. "Now Zuma is marching back into Luthuli House [the ANC party headquarters. He will demand to be reinstated as deputy president and the others will find it difficult to block him ... This is a major victory for Zuma's political career."

Brown had it exactly right, and thanks to her my story got it right, too. Zuma was reinstated as the party’s deputy leader and went on to become the leader, and he is now almost certain to become the ANC’s nominee for president of the country in the upcoming national elections.

The corruption charges have also played a key role in South Africa’s political situation. Last September, in another dramatic legal victory for Zuma, the courts dropped the corruption charges and Zuma succeeded in getting Thabo Mbeki to resign as president because of allegations he had tried to influence the courts to take Zuma to trial. Mbeki’s supporters then quit the ANC and formed a new party, the Congress of the People (Cope).

Now the courts have reversed their decision and Zuma is once again to face trial. Mbeki may yet be vindicated, but he is no longer president. And whether or not Zuma actually goes to trial, it appears he intends to press ahead with his ambition to become South Africa’s next president.

“The best solution for South Africa would be for Zuma to step down and let (current interim president Kgaleme) Motlanthe lead the ANC into the election,” said another sharp analyst, Sheila Meintjes, head of political studies at Johannesburg’s University of the Witswatersrand. “But the likelihood remains that Zuma will go into the poll with this fraud cloud hanging over him.”

I don’t think Zuma will step down, either, which means that we will have many more fascinating stories about Zuma, the African National Congress, Cope and South Africa’s elections. Watch this space!