A judge dismissed the corruption indictment against former Deputy President Jacob Zuma today after the prosecution said it was not ready to proceed.
The judge ruled first against a prosecution request for a postponement in the trial, saying the state's case had "limped from one disaster to another." When the prosecution said then it was not ready to proceed, Judge Herbert Msimang said he had no choice but to dismiss the current indictment, setting off celebration by Zuma supporters in the courtroom.
Prosecutors will have to decide if they have enough evidence to bring a new indictment against Zuma. Even before today's ruling, doubts had been growing that the state could secure a conviction.
Zuma, who remains deputy leader of the ruling African National Congress, has recently stepped up his campaign to succeed Thabo Mbeki as ANC leader next year, which would automatically catapult him to contend for the country's presidency. today's court decision is likely to boost his prospects.
Zuma, who has attracted support from leftist groups, had contended the charges are the result of a political conspiracy by forces within the ANC to derail his candidacy.
Defence attorney Kissie Naidu, part of team representing the French arms company Thint indicted alongside Zuma, said after today's ruling that as far as he was concerned "the matter is now over."
Prosecutors and defence attorneys met separately to assess the ruling and did not have any other immediate comment.
Zuma, who was acquitted of rape charges in an unrelated case earlier this year, was axed by Mbeki in 2005 when it became clear he would have to stand trial on corruption charges.
The 64-year-old former guerrilla leader had pleaded innocent to charges that he was aware of efforts by his financial adviser Schabir Shaik to secure him yearly payments of 500,000 rands (US$70,000) from the French company to deflect corruption investigations into a large South African arms deal.
The investigations centered on a 52.7 billion rand (US$7.1 billion) deal to buy ships, submarines, helicopters, jets and other arms in 1999. Shaik, a close friend of Zuma, was convicted for fraud and corruption last year and sentenced to 15 years in prison. His appeal will be heard next week.
The prosecution has asked Msimang to delay - possibly until next year - the start of South Africa's most politically explosive trial in decades to give the state time to amend its indictment with new evidence obtained in police raids last year.
The defence has asked that the judge order the state to proceed immediately or dismiss the current indictment. Zuma was concerned that any further delays in the already-protracted case will hamper his hopes to become president of Africa's economic and political powerhouse.