The ANC leader Jacob Zuma will have to fight an election campaign later this year with corruption charges hanging over him after an appeals court ruled that a corruption case against him could resume.
The man expected to become the next president of South Africa faces the renewed legal challenge after a judge overturned the ruling of a lower court saying it had "overstepped" its authority. It leaves the dogged Mr Zuma, 66, facing yet another court battle in his tortuous bid for the highest office. The former trade union leader has been in and out of court almost continuously for the past six years accused of an assortment of crimes from corruption to racketeering and rape, of which he was acquitted.
The legal battles have reshaped the political landscape in Africa's biggest economy, forced Thabo Mbeki to resign the presidency, split the ANC and shaken many South Africans' faith in their legal system. And yet the Zulu elder remains on course to take over from stand-in Kgalema Motlanthe who is widely believed to be keeping the seat warm for him.
However, Mr Zuma's inability to escape the long shadow of a controversial $5bn (£3.4bn) arms deal, which has already led to the jailing of his business adviser Schabir Shaik, has wounded the ANC and left it vulnerable ahead of what will be a historic electoral challenge.
A High Court ruling last September that cleared Mr Zuma on a technicality also implied political interference at the highest level, prompting the resignation of President Mbeki. This in turn caused a major rift inside the ANC and a splinter group emerged, the Congress of the People (Cope), led by a close ally of Mr Mbeki's, Mosiuoa Lekota. With Cope making a good showing in local elections last month the stage is set for the ANC's first ever serious electoral challenge.
Yesterday's blow came just as the ANC was seeking to promote its election manifesto. It also spooked markets with investors concerned that Cope and the ANC will veer to the left in a battle for grassroots support.
While few observers expect anything other than a win for the ANC, the legal difficulties could improve the chances of Cope and another opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.
Jeremy Gordin, Mr Zuma's biographer, said that while "no one is impervious" to pressure, the ruling is unlikely to worry the veteran politician. "After five or six years of battle it's just another step in court." He said the real question was whether the ANC leadership would "stay strong" in its backing for the party leader. "It depends whether there are voices in the ANC leadership asking if he is the right man, or if it might be better for everyone if someone else [came in]," he said.
So far Mr Zuma – who was the ANC's head of intelligence during the struggle against apartheid – has retained the staunch support of the ANC leadership, the Communist Party and trade unions. The ANC responded with a muted statement, saying that while it respected the appeals court ruling, "it is important to note that this judgment has nothing to do with the guilt or otherwise of the ANC president. Nor does it make any pronouncements on the merits of the charges previously brought by the National Prosecuting Authority."
The NPA quickly released its own response, saying that Mr Zuma remained a "charged man".
The 16 counts, including corruption, money laundering and racketeering, stem from a 1999 arms deal. Mr Zuma appeared to expect the setback and chose not to attend the Supreme Court of Appeal hearing in Bloemfontein.
Colourful past: The life of Jacob Zuma
*The current ANC leader served 10 years in prison on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela
*Zuma played a key role in halting political violence between the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party and the largely Xhosa ANC
*Comes on stage at ANC rallies to the struggle anthem "Bring me my machine gun"
*After five marriages, he has three wives and 19 recognised children
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