- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA (AP) - Prosecutors dropped corruption charges against Jacob Zuma on Monday, saying the case had been manipulated for political reasons and clearing the way for him to become the next president without the looming threat of a trial.

Zuma is the ruling party’s candidate in the April 22 elections and is almost certain to win given the African National Congress’ big majority.

Mokotedi Mpshe, acting director of public prosecutions, upheld long-standing complaints by Zuma that he was the victim of a political conspiracy, and that key prosecutors had abused their powers in pursuing the case against the 66-year-old former guerrilla leader.

“It is neither possible nor desirable for the National Prosecuting Authority to continue with the prosecution of Mr. Zuma,” Mpshe told a packed news conference that was broadcast nationwide.

His decision followed a lengthy review of taped phone conversations between prosecutors first brought to Mpshe’s attention by Zuma’s legal team. It was unclear how Zuma’s team obtained the recordings, but Mpshe said prosecutors determined they were authentic.

The news was greeted with an outpouring of joy and Zuma supporters danced through the streets of downtown Johannesburg, while car horns blared and whistles shrieked. Hundreds waved ANC flags in a downtown Johannesburg square, dancing and singing to Zuma’s theme song “Bring Me My Machine Gun.”

“I’m very happy for the decision, hoping that this gives our president what he needs for us to go forward,” said Victress Iwabi, an ANC town councilor. “I think under Zuma people will have decent work, free and quality education, quality health care for all. And we are going to defeat crime.”

There was no immediate reaction from Zuma; the ANC was due to have a news conference later Monday.

The presidential candidate for COPE, a recently formed political party that broke away from the ANC, said prosecutors should have gone forward with the case.

“It’s a dark day for South African law. I did not hear anything that suggests how we will pull ourselves out of this mess,” Mvume Dandala said. “We still have not heard about the merits or the demerits of the case against Mr. Zuma. The South African people want to know: Is he innocent or is he guilty?”

Prosecutors said Monday they remained convinced their case against Zuma was strong, and that they were withdrawing it only because the process was tainted.

Impoverished black South Africans embrace Zuma as a man they believe understands their struggle. Born in the rural Zulu heartland, Zuma lost his father when he was a young boy. His mother worked as a maid in Durban, and by the age of 15 Zuma was doing odd jobs to help her.

He joined the ANC in 1959 and was arrested in 1963, convicted of conspiring to overthrow the white-minority government and sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island, the same prison where Nelson Mandela spent so many years. He left South Africa in 1975 and spent 12 years in exile.

In 2006, Zuma was acquitted of raping a family friend. But he outraged AIDS activists by testifying that he had unprotected, consensual sex with the HIV-positive woman and then took a shower in the belief that it would protect him from the virus.

Zuma was accused of accepting bribes to thwart a probe into wrongdoing by a French arms company involved in a massive weapons deal in the late 1990s.

Former prosecuting chief Bulelani Ngcuka said in 2003 that there was evidence of corruption by Zuma, but the case wasn’t strong enough to go to court. But then in 2005 Zuma’s close friend and business associate Schabir Shaik was sentenced to a lengthy jail sentence for bribery and corruption and the judge said the two men had a “generally corrupt” relationship. Shaik was granted parole on medical grounds last month.

Former President Thabo Mbeki fired Zuma as his deputy, but Zuma bounced back thanks to a groundswell of support from rank-and-file ANC members and ousted Mbeki as ANC president in December 2007.

Within days of Zuma’s victory, prosecutors pressed new charges.

It was the timing of the December charges that Mpshe discussed at length at the news conference.

He said that intercepted phone conversations between former prosecutor Ngcuka and Leonard McCarthy, the former boss of an elite investigating unit called the Scorpions, proved that the timing of the new charges was indeed politically motivated. Both Ngcuka and McCarthy were close allies of Zuma’s rival Mbeki.

“An intolerable abuse of process has occurred which requires discontinuation of the prosecution,” Mpshe said.

But he was quick to add that there was no conclusive evidence that Mbeki himself was involved directly _ although this is what Zuma’s allies have suggested.

Mbeki was forced to resign as national president last September when a judge threw out charges against Zuma, saying there had been political meddling. But the Supreme Court of Appeal reversed that judge’s decision earlier this year.

Zuma’s rollercoaster legal ride reached its climax Monday. Mpshe said it was “the most difficult decision I have ever made in my life.” He said there would now be a separate investigation and a possible criminal case against Ngcuka and McCarthy.

Ngcuka is now a wealthy businessman. McCarthy left South Africa last year to take up a position as an anti-corruption buster at the World Bank’s Integrity unit.

___

Associated Press writers Clare Nullis in Cape Town and Michelle Faul in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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