ANC to tamper with constitution for Zuma’s immunity?

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Jacob Zuma, the clear frontrunner to become South Africa’s next president following elections due within weeks, will go into the campaign facing corruption charges after a court reinstated 16 counts related to his role in a vast arms deal.

The judgement is the latest twist in a legal battle that has embroiled the most powerful people in the country and shaken investors’ faith in Africa’s biggest economy.

The supreme court of appeals in Bloemfontein sided with prosecutors who accuse Mr Zuma of corruption, fraud, money-laundering and tax evasion in connection with the assistance he allegedly rendered European arms companies who won business in the R30bn deal signed in 1999 to equip the post-apartheid armed forces.

In a caustic judgement, it pilloried the September ruling by a lower court judge, Chris Nicholson, who threw the case out on a technicality and found that there was evidence to support Mr Zuma’s claims that he had been the victim of persecution through the courts by his rivals, including Thabo Mbeki, the former president.

Louis Harms, acting deputy president of the supreme court of appeal, said Judge Nicholson had ”taken his eye off the ball” by ruling on political meddling claims that had ”nothing to do with the case”.

Part of Mr Nicholson’s judgement – which provided Mr Zuma’s backers with the final lever to oust Mr Mbeki from the presidency by in September – was based not on evidence but on ”the judge’s own conspiracy theory”.

Both judges stressed that no court has yet ruled on Mr Zuma’s guilt or innocence. Prosecutors will now seek a date for a full trial, although this is unlikely to be set for any earlier than August, by when Mr Zuma can expect the electoral dominance of the African National Congress, the ruling party he leads, to have swept him into office.

South African leaders do not enjoy immunity from prosecution and ANC insiders deny rumours that they plan to tinker with the constitution to introduce such a rule. Mr Zuma’s lawyers are likely to appeal and may seek a permanent stay of the charges on the grounds that their client could not expect a fair trial after five years of high-profile legal intrigue.

ANC officials said the party was looking at the possibility of filing separate legal action, arguing that its constitutional rights to select its presidential candidate had been infringed by political controversy surrounding the case.

Business leaders had been privately delighted in September when it seemed the legal uncertainties over the presumptive next president were at an end. Monday’s judgement brought a fresh bought of jitters, with the rand falling by nearly 3 per cent against the dollar on the news.

Financial Times

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