JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African President Jacob Zuma’s decision to appoint a panel to investigate a decade-old arms deal mired in corruption could mark a turning point in a bruising political battle in his ruling African National Congress.
The knives have been coming out for Zuma ahead of an ANC meeting next year when the party elects its leaders, with foes who are trying to oust him looking to expose as many embarrassing secrets as possible to tarnish him and his allies.
Zuma, implicated but not convicted in the arms deal, may have asked for the panel so that he can dictate the terms of the investigation and fend off his rivals, analysts said.
Zuma’s biggest political fight now is with ANC Youth League leader and party power-broker Julius Malema. The two appear to have already had a tit for tat exchange of corruption allegations, and are squaring off in an ANC disciplinary hearing that could derail Malema’s political career.
Youth League officials in Malema’s home-base stronghold of Limpopo told financial daily Business Day they would press for an investigation into the arms deal to gain leverage for the league’s leader at his ANC hearing.
“In a sense, the president’s hand was forced,” said Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC member of parliament who has long called for more investigations into the deal.
Feinstein told Talk Radio 702 that Zuma was staring down a court deadline to produce papers relating to the arms deal and the likely charge from Malema’s supporters.
“When politicians’ hands are forced in this way, they sometimes do things they hope they can control after the fact.”
Zuma’s two years in office have been criticized for ineffectual leadership. His support rate has slipped with the public seeing him as more focused on domestic political fights than fixing problems plaguing Africa’s largest economy.
Zuma’s main policy initiatives to improve education, create jobs and stamp out corruption have been met by South Africa slipping in international rankings in the quality of its schools, increased joblessness and concerns of growing cronyism in his government.
The 30 billion rand ($4 billion) deal to buy European military equipment from about a decade ago has clouded South Africa’s politics, and Zuma, for years.
It has led to a few convictions of officials who took bribes to help land contracts but critics said investigations did not go far enough, letting several others off the hook.
Zuma — then deputy president — was linked to the deal through his former financial adviser, who was jailed for corruption. This almost torpedoed Zuma’s bid for high office but all charges against him were dropped in 2009.
In addition to the veiled threat from Malema’s supporters, a special corruption-busting police unit called the Hawks has said it wants to re-open an investigation of the case.
“It’s an attempt by Zuma to regain control over the investigation process into the arms deal and any of the leaking of information into the run up to the ANC’s elective conference in 2012,” said Hennie van Vuuren, director of the Institute for Security Studies Cape Town office.
Several senior ANC leaders have been tainted by scandal, with groups in the highly fractious party often using corruption allegations as a way to gain leverage.
In what may be example of how the fight is fought, as frictions were growing between Zuma and Malema, a politically connected official leaked details to a major daily about a trust fund used by Malema to finance his lavish lifestyle. The story published in July led to a police probe of Malema’s finances.
A few days after the story, police raided a mining company linked to Zuma’s son over allegations of fraud related to the issue of prospecting rights.
The arms deal has touched many top ANC leaders, making it a fertile breeding ground for material as infighting heats up ahead of the ANC party election about a year from now.
Malema, 30, is considered too young to take on a senior position, but his calls to take over mines and redistribute wealth to the poor have made him one of the country’s most popular politicians and a powerful force in the ANC.
The Malema disciplinary hearing is a high risk gamble for Zuma. If Malema is suspended from the party, Zuma removes forces that could block his re-election. But if Malema is exonerated, he will be courted by Zuma’s rivals lining up their bids for power.
For Zuma, the most effective arms deal probe would be one he controls, where he could limit damage to himself and his allies.
“Given the political casualties, there is a big incentive to delay the release of the report, if not make it public at all,” the country’s biggest newspaper, The Star, said in an editorial on Friday.
Additional reporting by Mmathabo Tladi; Editing by Marius Bosch