6 April 2009

South Africa: Zuma Dodges Prosecution After Party Infighting

Cape Town — Infighting within the ranks of South Africa's ruling African National Congress has led to prosecutors dropping charges of corruption, fraud, money-laundering and tax evasion against Jacob Zuma, the party leader who is due to become the country's president after elections later this month.

The acting head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), Mokotedi Mpshe, announced in a televised news conference in Pretoria on Monday that he was abandoning the prosecution of Zuma because the NPA's top investigator was suspected of manipulating the timing of the case against Zuma in late 2007.

The investigator, Leonard McCarthy, had held a series of telephone conversations with a former NPA head, Bulelani Ngcuka - who had no longer worked for the NPA - in which the two had discussed the timing of bringing charges against Zuma in the weeks leading up to his highly-contested election as party leader.

Ncguka is regarded as a supporter of former president Thabo Mbeki - who lost the leadership election against Zuma. The charges Zuma faced were brought after his election.

Mpshe said McCarthy's conversations amounted to a "serious abuse of process" in which attempts were made to manipulate the case for "collateral and illicit purposes". Referring to newspaper reports in the past week saying that Mbeki had also spoken to McCarthy, Mpshe said he could find no evidence that Mbeki was involved in the manipulation.

However, he made it clear that the NPA still believed it had a strong case against Zuma. He said the team of prosecutors who prepared the case had recommended that it go forward and that a court should decide on whether the abuse had been serious enough to vitiate the charges.

But Mpshe overruled the team. He said he had made a number of court affidavits denying political motives for the case against Zuma. "I [now] feel personally wronged and betrayed... Like Caesar's wife, the prosecution must be above any trace of suspicion."

Recordings of the phone conversations were given to the NPA by Zuma's defence team. Mpshe said the NPA had established that the recordings had been made in telephone taps carried out by South Africa's National Intelligence Agency (NIA). He said they had been made legally, but did not explain how they had come into the hands of Zuma's lawyers.

Since coming to power in 1994, the ANC has employed a policy of "deploying" loyal party members such as Ngcuka to key posts in South Africa's civil service - including the prosecuting authority, the police and intelligence agencies.

In the charges against Zuma, the NPA alleged that in the decade between 1995 and 2005, Zuma received 783 payments totalling R4 million (about U.S. $400,000 at today's exchange rate) from his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik.

Shaik was convicted and jailed on corruption and fraud charges in 2005. Mbeki responded by firing Zuma as deputy president of the country. Shaik was recently released in suspect circumstances on medical parole.

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