Corruption sentence seals fate of Mbeki deputy

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The Independent Online

A South African court has imposed a 15-year jail sentence on a businessman accused of maintaining a "corrupt relationship" with President Thabo Mbeki's deputy, Jacob Zuma.

The sentence was handed down as President Mbeki kept the nation guessing on his course of action against his deputy, who has been severely damaged in the most sensational corruption trial in post-apartheid South Africa.

Mr Mbeki, the unofficial spokesman of Africa's bid to obtain more aid from rich countries, has incensed many by keeping Mr Zuma in government after the conviction of Schabir Shaik for corruption. The Durban High Court Judge Hillary Squires convicted Mr Shaik, a flamboyant businessman, for paying more than £100,000 to Mr Zuma in return for favours to advance his business interests.

In fact, Mr Mbeki seems to have pointedly ignored his critics by appointing Mr Zuma to act as President while he is on a state visit to Chile, a move the official opposition leader Tony Leon described as being "grossly irresponsible".

Mr Leon said that by failing to take action against his deputy, Mr Mbeki was squandering an opportunity to convince sceptics of Tony Blair's Africa debt relief project that the extra aid the Prime Minister is hoping to get for Africa will not be lost to the continent's corruption.

The South African President has nonetheless promised a statement on Mr Zuma on his return from Chile this week, a move that has drawn more criticism from those who expected him to act urgently.

Mr Zuma has ignored calls to resign. In fact, he was lauded by MPs from Mr Mbeki's African National Congress, who chanted slogans in support of Mr Zuma as he entered Parliament yesterday. ANC MPs danced and sang: "We will follow our Zuma."

Judge Squires handed Shaik mandatory 15-year sentences on each of two counts of corruption and three years on a third charge of corruption, all to run concurrently. He also fined Shaik's companies a total of nearly £400,000.

Judge Squires said corruption undermined the achievements of the anti-apartheid struggle, dismissing mitigating arguments about Shaik's role in the fight against racist rule in South Africa. "Far from carrying out the objectives of the [anti-apartheid] struggle, this whole saga represents a subversion of it," Judge Squire said.

The judge did not spare Mr Zuma either. "These were no payments to a low- salaried bureaucrat who was seduced into temptation," he said. "The higher the status of the beneficiary ... the more serious the offence."

Mr Zuma had previously been seen as President Mbeki's obvious successor when his term runs out in 2009. But many believe that the Shaik case has obliterated Mr Zuma's hopes of clinching the top job, even though the Deputy President is still clinging on. He is apparently buoyed by the support he is getting from radical but influential factions within the ANC.

Meanwhile, the ANC youth league has gone on the offensive against Judge Squires, dismissing him as an "old Rhodesian" and "apartheid- era judge" who had been recruited into a scheme to block Mr Zuma's ascendancy.

The remarks prompted the South African Human Rights Commission to intervene with a statement in support of the judge, who served as former president Ian Smith's justice minister in the then Rhodesia before moving to South Africa.

After Shaik listened to the verdict, read on national television, Shaik said his fate rested in God's hands, adding: "I shall feel like that even if I have to spend 15 years in jail."

The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, welcomed the "meticulous" sentence against him, saying it sent a strong anti- corruption message.

Shaik's bail was extended until 26 July, when the Durban High Court will hear his application for leave to appeal.

The dealings

* 1999, Sept: Government announces plans to purchase aircraft and ships for 29.9 billion rand (£2.4bn). Opposition MP Patricia de Lille accuses government of corruption over arms deal

* 2000, Jan: President Thabo Mbeki says there is no prima facie evidence against government members relating to arms deal

* 2001, Jan: 'Mail & Guardian' weekly reports that Schabir Shaik, friend and advisor to Deputy President Jacob Zuma, and brother of government arms purchaser Chippy Shaik, is director of a firm awarded 400 million-rand contract in arms deal

* 2002, March: Chippy Shaik resigns as government arms purchaser

* 2003, Aug: Prosecutors say there is prima facie evidence against Zuma, but a court case would not be winnable. Schabir Shaik charged with corruption

* 2004, Oct: Schabir Shaik starts trial in Durban

* 2005, 2 June: Schabir Shaik convicted of corruption and fraud

* 8 June: Shaik sentenced to 15 years in jail