On January 12th South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal reinstated 18 counts of corruption,racketeering,fraud and tax evasion against Jacob Zuma. Yet,backed by his party,the ebullient leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) continues to insist that he will be the party’s presidential candidate in national elections expected to be held in April. This adds further spice to polls already deemed the most important since the first post-apartheid elections in 1994. Unlike their counterparts in most other countries,South Africa’s presidents do not enjoy immunity from prosecution. This means that the country’s next head of state could find himself ignominiously hauled through the courts and even jailed.
The wily Mr Zuma will,of course,do his utmost to avoid such an eventuality. He has launched an appeal against the latest ruling. His aides are already deep in talks with the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in an attempt to cut some kind of deal allowing him,for example,to plead guilty to lesser charges.
Ever since Mr Zuma was first indicted in 2005 in connection with a 30 billion rand ($5 billion) arms deal in the late 1990s,he has protested his innocence,claiming he was the victim of a conspiracy aimed at thwarting his hopes of succeeding Thabo Mbeki,then still president. Mr Mbeki promptly sacked Mr Zuma as the country’s deputy president,causing a rift in the ruling party that rapidly grew into an unbridgeable chasm. In December 2007,Mr Mbeki suffered a stunning defeat at the party’s national congress in Polokwane when 60% of the delegates voted to make Mr Zuma party leader in his place.
However,nine months later,the High Court found that there had been unwarranted “political meddling” in the NPA’s decision to charge Mr Zuma. Although no names were mentioned,the finger of guilt was firmly pointed at Mr Mbeki’s people. The ANC’s powerful National Executive Committee took this as the pretext to call on the increasingly unpopular Mr Mbeki to step down as the country’s president.
Now,however,the Supreme Court of Appeal has ruled that the High Court overstepped its authority in reaching such “inappropriate” findings on political matters. The Supreme Court also dismissed the finding of a violation of Mr Zuma’s constitutional rights,thereby automatically reinstating the charges against him.
All this will overshadow the ANC’s election campaign,and comes as sweet music to the Congress of the People (known by the acronym COPE),the ANC breakaway party set up by anti-Zuma activists in the wake of Mr Mbeki’s resignation. Despite its newness,COPE is regarded as the first serious multiracial challenge to the ANC since the latter took over power from the last apartheid government 15 years ago. Since then,South Africa has been dominated by one party,with the former black liberation movement regularly winning 63-70% of the national vote. Although no one doubts that the ruling party will retain power in the national and provincial elections,the ANC fears that COPE,together with other opposition parties,could make inroads into its traditional support for the first time. Internal ANC research suggests that the party’s support might fall below 60%,making it lose the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to change the constitution to,say,grant immunity to sitting presidents.
At an ANC jamboree in the Eastern Cape on January 10th,a beaming Mr Zuma launched the party’s election manifesto,including a promise to tackle corruption within the party. Calling for “change and continuity”,the left-leaning manifesto is full of vague pledges to extend public services and welfare benefits for the poor,without explaining how this might be done in a sharp economic downturn.
On January 24th COPE is due to launch its own manifesto,also in the Eastern Cape,a province that it hopes to wrest from the ANC’s control. The Eastern Cape is one of South Africa’s poorest provinces and will be the main battleground of the election. Elsewhere the skirmishing has also begun,perhaps all too literally. Earlier this month a youth leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party was assassinated in Durban. More violence is expected.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008