Zuma Dodges Corruption Charges

Guns and Money

In Johannesburg, South Africa, supporters of presidential candidate Jacob Zuma celebrated by leaning on horns, blowing whistles and waving flags, after the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) dropped 16 charges against the African National Council (ANC) front-runner. Prosecutors had accused Zuma of taking bribes via Schabir Shaik, his adviser who connived with French arms company Thales International (Thint) to win military arms deals from the state.

Deals with the French company worth several billion dollars were in the works in 1999, when investigators began to look into the details of the transactions. The arms company apparently worked through Zuma's financial adviser Shaik, and recruited Zuma to interfere with the investigation. Zuma, who served as deputy president under Thabo Mbeki, had faced corruption, fraud, racketeering and money-laundering charges.

In 2005, Schabir Shaik was found guilty of corruption and sent to prison to serve several concurrent sentences amounting to 15 years. In 2005 President Thabo Mbeki dismissed deputy president Zuma after the high court found Schaik guilty. The judge in the case noted the "generally corrupt" relationship between Zuma and Shaik. After serving 28 months of his sentence, mostly in private hospitals, Shaik was released on a controversial medical probation last month.

Upon hearing the charges were dropped against Zuma, hundreds of supporters danced and sang to Zuma's theme song, "Bring Me My Machine Gun", an apartheid era rally song.

Who Needs Lawyers?

Zuma's popularity assures broad support for his election April 22, despite his ripe court history, not only on account of the the corruption charges, but also because of a rape trial in 2006. Zuma's comments during the rape trial included the assertion that he had showered to protect himself from contracting AIDS from the woman who accused him of rape, and that he knew that the woman wanted to have sex because of the type of skirt she wore. His comments incensed those who care about public health and women's rights. As deputy president under Mbeki, Zuma served as the head of South Africa's National Aids Council and the Moral Regeneration Movement. Zuma was acquitted of the rape.

People anticipated the charges would be dropped, and now expect Zuma to win the presidential election. But the corruption case hovers in the background uncomfortably. The case dragged on for years before wiretap tapes and transcriptions emerged which seemed to show a politically motivated plot on the part of the investigators. The case against Zuma fell apart on technicality, but the prosecutor pointed out that his decision: "does not affect the substantive merits of the case against [Mr] Zuma". Some people believe the charges will taint the South African democracy, not to mention the presidency of Mr. Zuma.

Thabo Mbeki dismissed Zuma as his deputy president after Shaik was found guilty, and Zuma was never found guilty of corruption charges. Interestingly though, Thabo Mbeki habitually railed against pharmaceutical companies who offered AIDS drugs by accusing them of being "like marauders of the military industrial complex who propagate fear to increase their profits". Of course, while thousands of Mbeki's compatriots died of AIDS, Mbeki denied the viral cause of AIDS and pursued various themes to produce AIDS drugs in Africa. During this time, while Mbeki refused to treat AIDS patients, under his administration billions of dollars of South Africa's wealth was going to foreign weapons manufacturers.

Strong-Arming Countries -- Oil For Planes

In the scheme of things, the bribes that Jacob Zuma accepted were not a big as bribes can get. Starting tonight, Frontline will air a one hour special titled "Black Money", a documentary on international corruption by military corporations. "Black Money" is based on the work of Guardian journalist David Leigh, who has been reporting on BAE corruption across the globe for more than five years. Last year Leigh wrote about BAE bribes to South African, in which BAE pressured the country to buy war planes at inflated prices. Chippy Shaik, the brother of Schabir, worked in the defense department and helped secure the deals.

"Black Money" focuses not so much on South Africa, but on BAE's bribes and the web of relationships between Britain, Saudia Arabia, and the US. BAE devised complex deals to secure £43bn in arms deals with Saudia Arabia. When British investigators at the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) started digging into the deals and Britain's part in them, Saudia Arabia threatened to break off collaborations with Britain against terrorism. Tony Blair's government abruptly curtailed the investigation.

"Black Money" follows the kingpin role of Saudia Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudia ambassador to the US, who benefited handsomely from the bribes. At one point Bandar retorts to the interviewer who probes about the multi-billion dollar deals: "So What?". Filmakers also interviewed former US FBI director Louis Freeh, now a private lawyer and consultant to Prince Bandar also appears "Black Money". He admits that money transfers amounting to $2 billion dollars flowed from BAE in Britain to the US bank accounts of the Saudi prince, but Freeh denies that Bandar accepted bribes. While acknowledging that the complicated deals and payments were set up in part to avoid congressional scrutiny Freeh retorts that the commingling of Saudi accounts is none of the US's business. The narrative and exchanges portrayed in the show "Black Money" add up to no more than "reckless allegations", says Freeh.

Has globalization and unfettered money exchange made the the world as callous as "So What?" and as compromising as Louis Freeh? Corruption is a globalized problem, with some of the biggest victims being the poorest countries, like Bangladesh. Of course all citizens of all countries pay for privileges of the lawless few at the top. The US is perhaps not as corrupt as Saudia Arabia nor is poor as South Africa. But while Africa and Europe and the Middle East and Asia see plenty of corruption, the US has its fair share of nefarious deals and Seawolf-like contracts made in the name of business by self-interested companies, lobbyists and politicians. Even now, as the Obama administration announces the military budget and certain key legislators obstruct the administration's goals to protect their states' prized military contracts, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that the US has its own solid brand of backroom dealmaking and military procurement malfeasance -- not to mention a faltering healthcare system.

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