POLOKWANE, South Africa – The top prosecutor in South Africa signaled Thursday that criminal charges would soon be filed against the newly elected leader of the ruling party, Jacob Zuma, complicating a comeback that has taken Zuma from political outcast to presidential favorite.
The news came on the same day Zuma broke his weeklong public silence to call on members of the African National Congress to heal rifts left by the most fractious power struggle in the party’s modern history. He won that battle Tuesday, besting incumbent Thabo Mbeki to take control of the party, but Zuma now faces the likelihood of a prosecution that, if successful, would make him ineligible to become the nation’s president and possibly land him in jail.
Prosecutors for several years have investigated Zuma’s role in a multibillion-dollar arms deal, including allegations that he took bribes to block investigations. On Thursday morning, Mokotedi Mpshe, acting national director of public prosecutions, told a radio station in Johannesburg that a final decision on whether to file charges was “imminent.”
“The investigation, with the evidence we have now, points to a case that can be taken to court,” Mpshe told Radio 702, according to the South African Press Association.
The looming charges complicate an already fraught political situation in South Africa, where 13 years of stability anchored by the party that ended apartheid are now clouded by the rivalry between Zuma, leader of the ANC, and Mbeki, leader of the national government. Mbeki fired Zuma as deputy president of the nation in 2005 over the same corruption allegations that prosecutors now are investigating.
News reports here say Zuma may force Mbeki to give up power before the next general elections, now scheduled for 2009. Meanwhile, Zuma may have to spend much of the next several months in court. He already won acquittal for unrelated rape charges and dismissal of an initial round of corruption charges.
On Thursday, he repeatedly declined to say what he would do if and when he is charged, telling journalists, “I will cross that bridge when I get there.”
Mbeki policy adviser Joel Netshitenzhe, who is also a senior party official, told reporters that there was no reason for Mbeki to step down. “Change in leadership in the ANC does not warrant change in leadership in government,” he said.