No Zuma, no country. This was the stark warning to the South African judiciary yesterday from Jacob Zuma's supporters as the ANC leader launched a court attempt to quash corruption charges that could thwart his ambition to become president.
Mr Zuma, who defeated President Thabo Mbeki for the leadership of the ANC last year, is all but assured of becoming president when Mr Mbeki's second and final term expires in eight months. But he still faces the obstacle of a long-running corruption case in which he is accused of, among other things, soliciting and receiving £300,000 in bribes from a French company and a businessman involved with South Africa's multibillion-pound arms procurement deal.
State prosecutors scored a major victory against Mr Zuma last week when the Constitutional Court ruled that they could use evidence seized during raids on Mr Zuma and his lawyers in 2006 in any trial of the ANC leader.
But Mr Zuma was back in the High Court in Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal province yesterday, seeking an order scrapping all the charges against him on the ground that prosecutors failed to follow due process when they charged him. Outside, some 3,000 supporters demonstrated, singing, chanting and waving placards to denounce the charges as trumped up. Many burst into song as Mr Zuma made his way into court.
Although Mr Mbeki is reviled over his controversial foreign policy, which has seen him supporting dictators in Zimbabwe and Burma, he is hailed for his stewardship of the South African economy which has experienced sustained growth during his tenure.
"Long live Jacob Zuma" and "viva the president in waiting", supporters sang as the hearing was adjourned until this morning.
The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has vehemently dismissed Mr Zuma's legal action as a desperate attempt to evade trial on the corruption, fraud, money-laundering and racketeering charges. That view is shared by many who cannot understand why, after having declared that he wants his day in court, Mr Zuma has done all he can to avoid standing trial on the substantive charges against him by repeatedly filing applications challenging technical aspects of his case. He has gone as far as filing court applications in foreign countries to stop the NPA from accessing documents needed as evidence against him.
The Independent understands that, after a 15-year sentence was handed down on Mr Zuma's financial adviser Schabir Shaik over the same charges, raising the possibility that Mr Zuma himself might also be convicted, his strategy is to delay his prosecution as long as possible until he becomes president next year. The ANC, which is assured of a two-thirds majority because of the continued non-existence of a viable opposition party, would then change the constitution to give immunity from prosecution for any sitting president.
Mr Zuma's die-hard communist supporters who see all attempts to prosecute him as a carefully orchestrated judicial and political conspiracy by Mr Mbeki to stop their man becoming president, are solidly standing behind Mr Zuma. They have even gone as far as accusing South Africa's respected judiciary of bias against Mr Zuma.
Veteran anti-apartheid fighters in the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) said any defeat for Mr Zuma in the courts "will not be tolerated". "We are going to make sure that Zuma becomes president of this country no matter what. No Zuma, no country," said Ramatuku Maphuta, a senior MKMVA leader.
The business sector is nonetheless fearful of Mr Zuma, a populist who is barely educated and, as some allege, semi-literate. Fears abound that his communist ties might undo Mr Mbeki's pro-business policies and wreak havoc on the South African economy. Mr Zuma has tried hard to play down such fears, saying that he will not institute radical reforms that will kill growth. The case continues today.Reuse content