After a seven-year legal battle, a South African court has ruled that President Jacob Zuma should face corruption charges for allegedly taking bribes in connection with a multibillion-dollar arms deal.
Prosecutors had dropped the corruption charges in 2009, just weeks before the national election that brought Mr. Zuma to power. But the court on Friday rejected that decision, ruling that the prosecutors had been irrational and secretive in their decision.
The ruling is yet another political blow to the embattled South African President, just weeks after the country's highest court found that he broke the law by ignoring an order to repay state funds spent on personal benefits at his private home.
The allegations against Mr. Zuma have escalated dramatically this year. His own party, the ruling African National Congress, is investigating his close links to the Gupta business empire, run by a family originally from India who have gained enormous power in South Africa's state-owned companies in recent years. The Guptas reportedly have substantial influence over Mr. Zuma's cabinet appointments, and one cabinet minister has confirmed that the Guptas offered him a cabinet promotion.
Mr. Zuma survived an impeachment vote in Parliament this month. But he will face a key test in local elections on Aug. 3, the first opportunity for voters to respond to the mounting evidence against him. The court ruling on Friday is a major boost to his rivals both inside the ANC and outside the party as they attempt to portray him as a corrupt leader who tried to evade the law.
The corruption scandals and allegations have badly dented Mr. Zuma's popularity. A survey this year found that only 21 per cent of urban residents approve of his performance, down from 33 per cent last year. His support base, however, is concentrated in rural regions that are harder for pollsters to reach.
Political analyst Justice Malala, in a commentary this week, predicted that Mr. Zuma will survive as ANC leader even after the local elections in August. He said Mr. Zuma continues to control his cabinet and that his opponents remain a minority in the ruling party – largely because of a fear that Mr. Zuma would split the party by leading a breakaway faction if the ANC tries to oust him. "He is a master of the manipulation of power and weakness," Mr. Malala said.
The latest court ruling stems from a $4.8-billion (U.S.) arms purchase by the South African government in 1999, when Mr. Zuma was deputy president.
His financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was convicted in 2005 on charges of making illicit payments to Mr. Zuma in connection with the arms deal and other matters. Corruption charges were laid against Mr. Zuma in connection with the same payments, but prosecutors dropped the charges in 2009 on the grounds that there had been political interference by bureaucratic allies of Mr. Zuma's rival, former president Thabo Mbeki.
The decision to drop the charges was sharply criticized on Friday in a unanimous decision by the High Court in Pretoria, the capital. "The decision … to discontinue the charges against Mr. Zuma is irrational and should be reviewed," the court said. "Mr. Zuma should face the charges as applied."
The latest decision is almost certain to be appealed, triggering years of further legal wrangling. But it will give fresh ammunition to Mr. Zuma's opponents, both inside the ANC and on the broader national stage, as they fight to remove him.
The opposition Democratic Alliance, which spearheaded the legal challenge against the decision to drop the corruption charges, said it was "absolutely vindicated" by the court ruling.
"This finding by the court is an overwhelming victory for the rule of law," DA Leader Mmusi Maimane said in a statement. "President Zuma must finally come to the realization that he is not above the law."
The corruption charges were dropped in 2009 for "political purposes" to clear the way for Mr. Zuma's ascent to the presidency, he said. It was an "absolute outrage" that Mr. Zuma had used taxpayers' money to fight the charges for many years, he added.
In a brief statement after the ruling, Mr. Zuma's office said he had "noted the decision of the court" and will "give consideration" to the ruling and the "remedies" available to him. He is virtually certain to appeal the decision, but the DA says it will continue the legal battle, even after he leaves office.
The ANC, meanwhile, argued that the court ruling was merely a "judicial review of an administrative action" and did not deal with the question of whether Mr. Zuma was guilty of corruption.
"This matter has dragged on for close to a decade, and the ANC is pleased therefore that it now appears closer to resolution," the party said.