Jacob Zuma's hopes of succeeding Thabo Mbeki as president of South Africa were dealt a blow last night after prosecutors ordered him to stand trial for racketeering, money laundering, corruption and fraud.
His lawyer, Michael Hulley, told the state broadcaster that his client, who denies all wrongdoing, had been asked to appear at South Africa's High Court on 14 August to face the charges. The summons was delivered to Mr Zuma's residence in Johannesburg while he was away.
Just two weeks ago, Mr Zuma was celebrating a remarkable political comeback, having wrested control of the ruling party, the African National Congress, from President Mbeki and thus lining himself up to succeed his rival as president when South Africa goes to the polls in 2009. The spectre looms of the already deep divisions within the party deepening even further as his enemies in the ANC may try to argue that Mr Zuma should step down until the case against him has concluded.
Mr Zuma, 65, used to be South Africa's deputy president, before being fired by Mr Mbeki in 2005 when his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was convicted in 2005 of soliciting a bribe for him in a controversial $5bn (2.5bn) arms deal and sentenced to 15 years in jail.
Although prosecutors were forced last year to drop a corruption case against Mr Zuma himself due to procedural matters, they have continued investigating and recently filed court papers with what they said was fresh evidence. Supporters of Mr Zuma the former guerrilla fighter who served time on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela dismissed the whole furore as a conspiracy instigated by his political enemies to block his ascent to the pinnacle of South African power. What is certain is that it has proved to be a constant thorn in Mr Zuma's side. He was acquitted of rape charges in 2006, and won back the support of women voters, who had been thought unlikely to forgive him for the assertion that his alleged victim had been asking for sex because she said goodnight wearing nothing but a traditional full-length wrap, and that it was his duty as a Zulu man to not leave an aroused woman unfulfilled.
Earlier this month at a fractious ANC party congress in Polokwane, Mr Zuma won almost two-thirds of votes cast by delegates and thwarted Mr Mbeki's bid to win a third term as party leader, capitalising on disaffection that the incumbent had lost touch with the party's grassroots and was too intellectual to feel the needs of the people.
With the ANC leadership under his belt and given the party's electoral dominance in the country it has ruled since the end of apartheid in 1994, Mr Zuma was virtually guaranteed inheriting the presidency, but the new case may have thrown a spanner in the works.
Mr Zuma has said that if fresh charges were brought against him, he would not step down unless proved guilty. But Mr Mbeki's allies, still reeling from the humiliation of Polokwane, may have other ideas.Reuse content