South Africa Gears Up For Presidential Elections

The Presidential election for South Africa is scheduled for later this month. Jacob Zuma, leader of the African National Congress Party, seems poised to win the election. Zuma was recently cleared of corruption charges but critics are still skeptical of his ability to lead. NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault is in Johannesburg and discusses the political climate.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we turn to South Africa, where Jacob Zuma - the leader of the country's African National Congress party - seems poised to win the presidential election next month. He's been a hugely controversial figure. Dogged for years by allegations of corruption and even a charge of rape, he was earlier acquitted on the rape charge and this week a judge through out the last pending indictment against Zuma, saying the prosecution had unlawfully tampered with the case. Joining us from Johannesburg to tell us more is NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault who has followed the ups and downs of Zuma's career for the past decade. Hello, Charlayne, thanks for joining us.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Could you just set the table for us? What was the underlying allegation? What was Jacob Zuma accused of doing wrong in the first place in the corruption charge?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, this case is tied to one with his business partner, a man by the name Shabir Sheikh. South Africa was involved in securing an arms deal, conducting an arms deal about 19 years ago, and this all relates to Sheikh attempting to get favorable treatment for a French company to get the deal.

MARTIN: And as you said, Sheikh has been convicted for his end of this situation. The prosecution has been pursuing this case since I think 2005. So what happened that caused the judge to throw out the charges now?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, initially in 2005, 2006, there was litigation, but the National Prosecuting Authority, which the other day dropped the charges, at that time said they only had a prima facie case against Zuma. They didn't think they could win. They had the goods on him but they didn't think they could win the case. But just before the big African National Congress Party meeting last December, where the current president then, Thabo Mbeki, was running again for president of the party, and so was Jacob Zuma, these rumors started coming out that there were going to be new charges filed because there was new evidence. And actually on the day that Jacob Zuma defeated Thabo Mbeki for president of the party, the National Prosecuting Authority announced that it had additional charges and it was going forward with the case.

MARTIN: Well, in essence the allegation against the prosecution is that they timed these charges to damage Zuma politically. So now these charges have been thrown out on a technicality, Jacob Zuma is saying that he has been vindicated. I just want to play a short clip of his comments at a press conference when the news was announced that the charges had been dropped. Here it is.

Mr. JACOB ZUMA (African National Congress): You're creating a new kind of phenomenon, that (unintelligible) allegations, then you are guilty. I think (unintelligible) our constitution, particularly in South African media in particular.

MARTIN: There seems to be the implication here that even though the charges were dropped, that he had not been fully vindicated. Is that - do you have a sense of what does public opinions say here? Do people now believe, do voters believe he's been vindicated? Is there still a cloud over him?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, it depends on whom you talk to. If you listen to Jacob Zuma, he says there's no cloud. If you listen to most of his supporters and the ANC, they say he's been vindicated because they've been saying all along that this was a political prosecution and that it needed a political solution, which in effect they have gotten. Now, Zuma is saying that he feels completely vindicated, his supporters are saying that they are pleased with the courageous decision.

But then there are others who're saying this dropping of the charges by the Prosecuting Authority is not an acquittal. You can only be acquitted in a court of law, but that probably is not going to happen, and so Zuma and his supporters are in effect taking this as an acquittal.

MARTIN: Finally, Charlayne, when you were last on the program, we talked a bit about how some South Africans are concerned about the quality of their political leadership. There is this issue of the treatment of refugees from Zimbabwe, the question of whether South Africa has done enough to address the political crisis in Zimbabwe; there's the issue of South Africa seeming to cave into Chinese pressure, not to let the Dalai Lama come to the country for a conference to which he had been invited.

In that context, what does Jacob Zuma's prominence, what does his rise say about the next stage of South Africa's political leadership?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I think that what is happening in South Africa right now, and one says this with a great deal of hope, is what happens in many democracies, that you go through a lot of sturm and drang before you finally settle. And you know, the expectations were set very high by Nelson Mandela, who called this - and everybody else followed - calling this a miracle nation. But actually South Africa is becoming a nation like any other nation, and there is a little bit of a concern. In fact, some of the critics have said, you know, South Africa now is becoming a banana republic like all the other stale democracies on the continent. I don't really think that South Africa is going that way, that's just something in my gut, but there's a strong constitution here, there's a strong judiciary, and there is a growing civil society that's speaks its mind.

MARTIN: Charlayne Hunter-Gault is NPR's special correspondent in Africa. She joined us from Johannesburg. Charlayne, thank you so much.

HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Michel.

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