South African president-in-waiting Jacob Zuma made a bid Monday to get corruption and fraud charges against him thrown out of court — and thereby remove a major obstacle he faces to becoming the nation’s next leader.
Several thousand Zuma supporters staged a rally outside the court, singing the anti-apartheid song “Bring Me My Machine Gun,” which has become Zuma’s trademark. The peaceful crowd carried placards reading “Zuma for President” and sold souvenirs bearing his image.
The 66-year-old former guerrilla fighter — smiling and relaxed looking in a gray suit — stands accused, along with a French arms company, of bribery in a multi-billion-rand (dollar) 1999 arms deal. Zuma and his supporters claim he is at the center of a political conspiracy aimed at thwarting his ambitions to be president.
“We think the charges should be dropped,” Jessie Duarte, a spokesman for the governing African National Congress, told reporters at the court. “We think it is persecution, not prosecution.”
If Judge Chris Nicholson agrees, he could drop all charges against Zuma, the president of the ANC. But if not, Zuma could face trial later this year — although it is doubtful that any process would be completed before next year’s legislative elections.
Zuma is the party’s presidential candidate, and prolonged legal uncertainty could throw South Africa’s political landscape into turmoil and decrease already nervous foreign investment in southern Africa’s only economic powerhouse.
The ANC is expected to hold onto its big majority in Parliament during the general election, and then elect Zuma as the nation’s president.
On Monday, his lawyer, Kemp J. Kemp, argued that the National Prosecuting Authority had violated its constitutional obligations by not consulting with Zuma before he was charged in 2005. Zuma and his lawyers argue that the case has dragged on too long, is unlawful and unconstitutional. They maintain that Zuma’s right to a speedy and fair trial has been violated.
The 2005 charges against Zuma were thrown out the next year on a technicality. But within days of him being elected ANC president last year, the National Prosecuting Authority said it had new evidence and filed racketeering, corruption, money laundering and fraud charges regarding the same 1999 arms deal.
Duarte said Zuma has been “persecuted” by prosecutors for the last eight years when allegations against him first surfaced and that he has been “found guilty” by the media.
“We want to give him moral and de facto support,” Duarte said, as some 70 ranking ANC members, including government ministers, packed the court benches Monday.
Many South Africans want a new leader after 10 years under President Thabo Mbeki, and Zuma’s allies say he has been made a scapegoat in a scandal that also has tainted the presidency.
Mbeki fired Zuma as the country’s deputy president in 2005, after Zuma’s financial adviser was sentenced to 15 years in jail for trying to elicit bribes from French company Thint, formerly Thomson CSF.
Zuma allegedly accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from Thint to use his influence and stop investigations into arms deal contracts with the government, prosecutors say.
Judge Nicholson agreed to a joint application by prosecutors and Thint’s South African chief executive, Pierre Moynot, to postpone Moynot’s criminal case until Dec. 8.
On Thursday, prosecutors won an important victory when the Constitutional Court upheld a ruling that the 2005 police seizure of incriminating documents from Zuma’s home and office was legal. It also ruled that prosecutors could bring documents from Mauritius about a meeting between a Thint executive and Zuma.
The ruling prompted Zuma loyalists to question the Constitutional Court judges’ integrity. They insist that Zuma will become South Africa’s next leader and have even mooted constitutional changes to prevent a sitting president from facing criminal charges. The powerful trade union confederation and the ANC Youth League have said their members would “kill” for Zuma.
On Monday, opposition leader Helen Zille called for Zuma to step down as a presidential candidate and expressed concern about growing threats of violence by his supporters.
“The discourse surrounding Zuma’s trial has shifted rapidly from menacing rhetoric to an all-out declaration of war by former soldiers,” Zille said in a statement. “This is effectively a promise of a military coup, if the courts find against Zuma.”