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Jacob Zuma, newly elected head of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, has been charged with corruption, according to multiple reports in the local media on Friday.
The charges, which are reported to include racketeering, tax evasion and corruption, have dramatically raised the political temperature just a week after the ANC voted out the country’s president, Thabo Mbeki, as party leader in favour of his charismatic but controversial rival, Mr Zuma. The corruption charge relates to a long-running investigation into a scandal-wracked multi-billion-dollar arms deal in the late 1990s.
The decision by national prosecutors to serve papers formally charging him sets the stage for a tense year in which many business people fear the government may be paralysed as Mr Zuma and Mr Mbeki vie for primacy.
Many of Mr Zuma’s supporters in the party’s grassroots and radical fringes have long alleged that he is the victim of a political conspiracy orchestrated by his old friend turned political enemy Mr Mbeki, and have threatened to protest and demonstrate if he is charged.
As the party’s leader Mr Zuma is favourite to be the country’s next president after elections in 2009, given the ANC’s electoral dominance. But he has made clear that he would not run if he was convicted.
Mr Zuma, who won the ANC leadership on the back of a populist campaign, was fired by Mr Mbeki as the country’s deputy president in 2005 after his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of corruption.
Asked on Friday at a Christmas party in Nkandla, his home village in rural Zululand, about reports that prosecutors had served papers on him at his Johannesburg home, he said he knew nothing about it.
But his lawyer, Michael Hulley, confirmed to the South African Broadcasting Corporation, the state broadcaster, that papers had been served on him by the National Prosecuting Authority.
The SABC said he was expected to face trial in August next year, but his lawyers have long made clear that they would expect to appeal to the Constitutional Court, the country’s top court, before a case could begin. It is not known if Mr Zuma has been given a summons to appear in court.
A previous corruption case against Mr Zuma relating to his former financial adviser’s case collapsed last year on a technicality. But the National Prosecuting Authority has since intensified its investigation into allegations that he accepted bribes in connection with the arms deal. Mr Zuma denies any wrongdoing.
Mr Zuma’s election last week was hugely controversial given his colourful recent past. He was acquitted last year of rape charges shortly before the corruption case collapsed.
In a whirlwind campaign in recent months he capitalised on perceptions that the more aloof Mr Mbeki had lost touch with the people and that his free-market policies were not doing enough to reverse the inequalities of apartheid.