1 August 2006

South Africa: It's 'Wait And See' for Zuma's Corruption Trial

Johannesburg — While the first half of 2006 in South Africa was dominated by the proceedings of former deputy president Jacob Zuma's trial on rape charges, the second looks set to be punctuated by his corruption trial. But, only if the court case goes ahead, of course.

On Monday, Judge Herbert Msimang postponed the trial until Sep. 5, so that the state could respond to a defence application for the case against Zuma to be dismissed.

The application came after prosecutors asked for proceedings to be delayed until February 2007. The former deputy president argues that such a postponement would further erode his right to a speedy trial, noting that the corruption charges against him have already taken a severe toll on his political and personal life.

Allegations that Zuma was involved in graft first surfaced several years ago. However, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions declined to press charges, saying the case against him was not sufficiently compelling.

Matters changed dramatically last year after Zuma's associate, Schabir Shaik, was found guilty on several counts. These included soliciting a bribe on the former deputy president's behalf from a French weapons company, Thomson CSF, to protect the firm from inquiries into a multi-million dollar arms deal. (The company has since been renamed Thales).

Judge Hillary Squires found that the two men had a "generally corrupt relationship", and that Shaik had also paid Zuma substantial sums for help in furthering his business interests.

The verdict in this court case led to Zuma's dismissal as deputy president, and the allegations against him being pursued. He and Thint, the South African subsidiary of Thales, are now in the dock on charges that focus -- in part -- on the firm's alleged bribing of Zuma to use his influence during the weapons deal inquiry.

However, Zuma has linked the case to an alleged conspiracy to prevent him from becoming head of state after Thabo Mbeki's final term ends in 2009. Before the rape and corruption trials, Zuma was seen by many as the frontrunner to succeed the president.

The case has highlighted divisions within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and other sectors of society, where some see Zuma as a champion of the poor -- and Mbeki as more remote from such concerns. The former deputy president's supporters turned out in force during his rape trial, held at the Johannesburg High Court -- and were reportedly also present in their thousands outside the court in the south-eastern city of Pietermaritzburg where the corruption trial is being held.

"The ANC is trying to present a unified front. But the cracks within the movement are showing," Santana Mahoko, a researcher at the Pretoria-based University of South Africa, told IPS.

In addition, proceedings have exposed tensions in the relationship between the ANC and its allies in a tripartite alliance, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party.

"We have always argued that the NPA (National Prosecuting Authority) has no case. The fact that they are insisting on delaying the case suggests that they have no case," COSATU spokesman Patrick Craven told IPS.

"They should drop it. They don't have enough evidence to pursue the case."

David Monyae, a lecturer in international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, shares the concern at prosecutors' inability to proceed immediately.

"The way things stand now, it seems the state has no case. It's very awkward," he said in an interview with IPS.

However, a victory for Zuma in this matter will not automatically restore him to the lead in the race for the presidency, added Monyae.

"If Zuma comes out clean his chances are very high, but that doesn't mean that he will have it easy. He will have to lobby," he noted. "If he's found guilty, he'll be politically dead."

Mahoko believes that baggage from the rape trial may encumber any effort by Zuma to play a leading political role, even though he was aquitted of the charges in May.

A HIV-positive family friend accused Zuma of violating her. The former deputy president said he had engaged in intercourse with the woman, but maintained this was consensual.

In one of the more sensational developments of the trial, Zuma told the court that he had failed to use a condom during sex despite the woman's HIV status -- but had taken a shower afterwards to minimise his chances of contracting the AIDS virus. This statement was widely denounced by AIDS campaigners, who claimed that it encouraged misconceptions about the virus.

"Even if Zuma comes out clean after this trial, the perception of him sleeping with an HIV-positive woman will remain in the minds of millions of Africans," noted Mahoko.

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