POLOKWANE, South Africa – South Africa's top prosecutor said Thursday he had enough evidence to bring corruption charges against Jacob Zuma, the man standing in line to be the country's next president. Zuma responded: "If I have a case to answer, then take me to court."
Mokotedi Mpshe told The Associated Press that prosecutors would announce in the new year the next step in their investigation into the allegations against Zuma, who was elected party leader of the African National Congress on Tuesday.
Mpshe is investigating allegations that in the 1990s, Zuma accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from the French arms company Thint to use his influence to stop investigations into a multibillion-dollar arms deal with the government. The contracts were suspected of being secured through bribes.
"The type of evidence we have so far can be taken to court," Mpshe said.
President Thabo Mbeki fired Zuma as the country's deputy president in 2005 after Zuma's financial adviser was convicted of trying to elicit a bribe for Zuma to deflect investigations into the arms deal. Charges were withdrawn against Zuma, who denies the allegations and says he is being pursued by prosecutors for political reasons.
At a news conference, Zuma complained that he was being tried in the media.
"There was an investigation which was conducted publicly against me, I was threatened to be charged in public, there were things said about me by those investigating," he said. "My problem was, `Why are these things being said in public? If I have a case to answer, then take me to court."
Zuma, whose political career so far has managed to survive sex and corruption scandals, routed Mbeki to win the ANC presidency at a divisive party convention. Zuma loyalists also won all other top party posts.
Zuma's victory meant that for the first time since apartheid ended, South Africa's president was not also the ANC leader. That had sparked speculation Mbeki might step down before his term as president ends in 2009, though an Mbeki aide said earlier Thursday he was not considering that.
Earlier Thursday, in his first speech since winning the leadership race, Zuma pledged to work smoothly with Mbeki, calling the South African president his "comrade, friend and brother" of 30 years.
"Contesting positions among comrades does not make us enemies," Zuma said, looking directly at Mbeki, who sat in the front row of at the ANC national conference, for the first time in decades not at center stage at a party meeting.
The possibility Zuma would be charged with corruption had hovered over the ANC congress since it opened Sunday, but his supporters had insisted he was innocent and the target of a political smear campaign.
The ANC leader is traditionally the party's presidential candidate, and overwhelming support for the party throughout South Africa has ensured victories for first Nelson Mandela in 1994, then Mbeki in 1999 and 2004. Mbeki is prevented by constitutional term limits from running again in 2009, but if he had won a third term as ANC leader, he would have been in position to groom his successor.
The prosecutor's comments Thursday were likely to focus attention on the new deputy president of the ANC, Zuma ally Kgalema Motlanthe, who would be in line to take over the ANC — and, presumably, its presidential nomination — should Zuma be forced to step aside.
In his former position as secretary-general, the 59-year-old Motlanthe was in charge of the day-to-day running of the party. Often seen at Zuma's side, he also has maintained relationships with people inside Mbeki's camp.
He told reporters this week that the prospect of Zuma facing fresh charges "is very difficult to deal with."
"The prosecution will have a second bite at him and we will see how that pans out," Motlanthe said.
Last year, Zuma was acquitted of raping a family friend, but he outraged AIDS activists by testifying that he had unprotected, consensual sex with the HIV-positive woman and then took a shower in the belief that it would protect him from the virus.
Zuma had rallied ANC members dissatisfied with Mbeki's market-oriented policies, which produced an economic boom and created a small black elite but failed to lift the majority from poverty.
In his speech, Zuma addressed concerns that he will veer sharply to the left under pressure from trade unions, communists and poor blacks who backed his leadership bid.
"There is no reason why the domestic or international community or any other sector should be uneasy," he said. "Our response on economic matters will bring closure and certainty ... We have made it clear that we need more foreign and domestic investment."