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Leaders of the African National Congress and their allies were giddy as they rode the elevator en route to the press conference at the ANC headquarters Monday afternoon, but when they faced hordes of reporters, the tone turned vindictive.
The National Prosecuting Authority had announced that morning that it was dropping its corruption case against ANC President Jacob Zuma as it found the case to be tainted by the conduct of a former investigator. As president of the ruling party, Zuma is widely expected to become South Africa’s president after the upcoming elections on April 22. So while ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe equated the ruling to an innocent verdict for Zuma, he made it clear there was still plenty of guilt to go around — starting with the journalists in front of him.
“Comrade Zuma endured an ordeal that has never been experienced by any other citizen,” Mantashe said. “For eight long years he was subjected to trial by the media and in the court of public opinion, he was denied his constitutional right to equality, dignity, privacy, right of access to court and his right to an expeditious, fair and impartial trial in the court of law. The inhumane and undignified treatment that Comrade Zuma suffered at the hands of our state prosecutors was not only disgraceful, it also brought our criminal justice into disrepute.”
Even though Mokotedi Mpshe, the National Prosecuting Authority’s acting national director, said the ruling is not equivalent to an acquittal, Zuma is effectively off the hook for corruption charges that have dogged him for years.
Days after his friend and financial adviser Schabir Shaik was convicted in 2005 of paying bribes on behalf of and to Zuma in connection with a big arms-procurement deal, Zuma was fired from his deputy-president position by former President Thabo Mbeki and later he was charged with corruption.
Zuma managed to evade charges — temporarily — and to defeat Mbeki in the election for the presidency of the ANC in 2007, thereby positioning himself as the next South African president. The wheel turned in Zuma’s favor again last year when a judge suggested Mbeki had meddled with Zuma’s case, and the ANC forced Mbeki to resign as president within days.
Another judge dismissed that ruling and reinstated the charges against Zuma in January, but today Mpshe said that because of the political interference in the case, “I have come to the difficult conclusion that it is neither possible nor desirable for the NPA to continue with the prosecution of Mr Zuma.”
Zuma’s supporters, convinced that their champion had all along been the victim of political machinations to keep him out of power, were elated, sporting his face on T-shirts and dancing on buses outside the ANC headquarters. Undoubtedly, many South Africans will also be relieved that the legal saga is seemingly over. After all, Zuma’s legal defense has cost taxpayers about $1.2 million, and the ANC estimates the NPA has spent $11 million to make its case.
But others will argue that while Zuma’s case was indeed tainted, he was never tried and therefore his innocence — or guilt — hasn’t been clearly demonstrated. That is the view of Helen Zille, leader of the opposition party Democratic Alliance, who said in a statement that the NPA’s decision to drop charges is “irrational and unlawful” and added that the DA was preparing to “take this matter further before the courts.”
That is also probably the view of many newspaper columnists, but it probably won’t matter. The ANC is all but assured of a resounding victory at the polls later this month, and as ANC ally and South African Communist Party General Secretary Blade Nzimande said: “Fortunately, not too many of our people read newspapers so they won’t be fooled by these gimmicks.”