Former South African President Jacob Zuma had avoided a host of corruption charges for roughly a decade, in the meantime winning and serving for years in his country's highest elected position — but on Friday, just over a month after Zuma resigned the presidency under significant political pressure, those criminal charges finally caught up with him.
South Africa's top prosecutor announced he is reviving 16 counts against the longtime leader, ranging from fraud and corruption to racketeering and money laundering.
"I am of the view that a trial court would be the most appropriate forum for these issues to be ventilated and to be decided upon," Shaun Abrahams, the national director of public prosecutions at the National Prosecuting Authority, or NPA, said in a televised speech Friday. "After consideration of the matter, I am of the view that there are reasonable prospects of a successful prosecution of Mr. Zuma on the charges listed in the indictment."
The charges concern an incident dating back to the late 1990s, when Zuma — then deputy president — allegedly accepted bribes during a $2.5 billion government arms deal with a French weapons supplier. He was indicted in late 2007 on a range of charges related to the deal, but the NPA dropped them in 2009, ultimately clearing his eventual path to the presidency.
Yet last fall, while Zuma was still in office, South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeal upheld a ruling to reinstate the charges, finding that the decision to drop them was "irrational." Abrahams said he drew on the recommendations of a "vastly experienced prosecuting team," which spent the past several months reviewing evidence and the objections of Zuma's lawyers, in his final decision to prosecute.
"Justice must not only be done but must also be seen to be done," Abrahams said. "I am mindful that everyone is equal before the law and enjoys the rights to equal protection and benefit of the law."
Zuma has long denied any wrongdoing.
As NPR's Greg Myre explained last month, these allegations are not the only claims of corruption that have been lodged against Zuma. There was the swimming pool, which South Africa's highest court said was purchased with government money — and which Zuma's advisers claimed to be in the interests of national security — that he eventually repaid. And the same week Zuma stepped down, police raided the home of a wealthy family that has "received huge government contracts," Greg pointed out.
For its part, his party, the African National Congress, said in a statement Friday that it is confident in the country's criminal justice system and "the constitutionally enshrined principle of equality of all before the law."
"Accordingly we call on South Africans at large to afford the NPA space to conduct its work unhindered," the party said, "we continue to assert the inalienable right of all in our country, including Comrade Jacob Zuma, to be presumed innocent until and if proven guilty."