JOHANNESBURG, Jan 13 – South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal has reinstated corruption charges against ruling party chief Jacob Zuma, clouding his presidential hopes in this year’s elections.
The move clears the way for prosecutors to revive their case against Zuma, but the African National Congress (ANC) immediately reaffirmed its support for the 66-year-old, saying he remains its presidential candidate in polls expected as early as April.
The decision complicates the ANC’s election campaign as it faces a new political challenge from a breakaway party created in the fallout of the Zuma case, which has roiled South African politics for years.
Judge Louis Harms, the court’s deputy president, handed down a scathing verdict overturning a lower court ruling that had tossed out the charges against Zuma.
The earlier ruling had also implied that former president Thabo Mbeki had meddled in the case, a claim the ANC used to sack him in September.
"Political meddling was not an issue that had to be determined," Harms said as he read out the verdict in a nationally televised hearing.
"Nevertheless, a substantial part of his judgment dealt with this question; and in the course of this discussion he changed the rules of the game, he took his eyes off the ball and red-carded not only players but also spectators," Harms said.
The earlier ruling by judge Chris Nicholson failed "to distinguish between allegation, fact and suspicion," Harms said, saying the lower court had made "gratuitous findings."
Nicholson had tossed out the charges on a technicality, saying that prosecutors had a constitutional obligation to speak to Zuma before proceeding with the case.
But in setting aside the lower court decision, Harms said that prosecutors had not violated Zuma’s rights in taking the case forward.
"Instead of relying on any representation, Mr Zuma relies on self-created expectations based on his own perceptions of the law and the facts which have always been in dispute," the judge said.
Prosecutions spokesman Tlali Tlali told AFP that the Supreme Court decision had lifted the "legal freeze" on Zuma’s criminal case and that the matter would go back to court.
"The legal affect is that Mr Zuma remains a charged person," he said.
Zuma’s lawyer Michael Hulley said he was still reviewing the verdict and deciding whether to seek an appeal to the Constitutional Court, the nation’s top court that has a narrow jurisdiction over purely constitutional issues.
"We are giving consideration to the judgment with a view to determining the appropriate legal recourse which may be exercised," he said in a statement.
The ANC’s decision to sack Mbeki over Nicholson’s findings sparked a split within the former liberation movement that spearheaded the struggle against apartheid.
Senior ANC members frustrated by Mbeki’s sacking have now launched their own party called the Congress of the People, which is gearing up to challenge in the elections.
Political analyst Dirk Kotze said the judgment would now loom over the election campaign, especially if prosecutors decide to move quickly with the case against Zuma.
"There are definitely going to be political considerations and a decision to prosecute will have big political ramifications," Kotze said.
Zuma had faced charges ranging from money-laundering to racketeering in a long-running corruption investigation dating back to 2001, which saw the accusations dropped then revived.
The main allegation was that he received bribes for protecting French arms giant Thales in an investigation into a controversial multi-million-dollar weapons deal.
The arms deal has caused controversy since the decision to purchase the expensive military equipment, and several high-ranking politicians have been accused of using the deal to enrich themselves.