Last Friday, a court in Pietermaritzburg threw out pending corruption charges against Jacob Zuma for procedural reasons and decided not to press ahead with his prosecution. The ruling did nothing to establish Zuma's guilt or innocence, and he may face future charges down the road. Still, it was a significant victory, and thousands of his supporters took to the streets, waving banners and dancing outside the court. Indoors, a visibly relieved Zuma greeted well-wishers and shook hands. His joy was easy to understand. At 67, Zuma, who's been head of the ruling African National Congress since December of last year, is the presumptive favorite to become the country's next president when elections are held in 2009.
Fighting off criminal charges is hardly a normal stage in attaining higher office. But then Jacob Zuma is no normal politician. He's a flamboyant former antiapartheid leader and exile who served as deputy president of South Africa from 1999 to 2005 before breaking with President Thabo Mbeki and later seizing the reins of the ANC. While his rise has been impressive, he's been dogged by controversy throughout his career. He's been accused of racketeering, fraud and money laundering, and the charges, along with Zuma's outsize persona, have fanned fears at home and abroad that he represents a dark turn for South Africa: away from the enlightened leadership of the country's early years as a multiracial democracy and toward the sort of big-man politics that have long blighted much of the continent. According to his opponents, Zuma is uneducated, corrupt and venal. As Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC colleague and political commentator, puts it, Zuma "doesn't have the moral integrity to lead the ANC or South Africa. His organization is characterized by thuggery."