The man likely to be South Africa's next president emerged victorious Friday from a corruption case that dogged him eight years, getting a hero's welcome from supporters hungry for a charismatic leader who understands the pain of poverty.
Jacob Zuma, a 66-year-old former guerrilla chief who already survived a rape scandal to rise to the leadership of the governing African National Congress, cleared a legal hurdle to his presidential ambitions when a judge dismissed fraud, money laundering and corruption charges.
“It is a victory for democracy,” a beaming Zuma declared to thousands of supporters singing and dancing in a display of his intense popular support that has been dubbed the “Zsunami.”
While he is lionized by the impoverished masses, Zuma is struggling to connect with nervous business leaders and foreign investors, who worry whether he harbors radical economic ideas.
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But even some business leaders wanted the charges against Zuma dropped in the interests of political stability for Africa's most powerful economy, given threats by his supporters to make the country ungovernable.
Zuma has sought to reassure the business community that he will not lead South Africa down the ruinous path that wrecked the thriving farm-based economy of Zimbabwe, and he wooed multinational investors at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He also has reached out to poor whites and the Jewish community.
After the court ruling, Zuma told the crowd he was victim of a political plot by his rival, President Thabo Mbeki. .
Zuma is expected to become president after elections in April or May. The ANC's huge majority means Zuma is almost certain to be elected.
In his judgment, Judge Chris Nicholson said the timing of the 2007 charges was most likely politically motivated. The judge cautioned that his ruling did not touch on guilt or innocence, and opposition parties were quick to urge prosecutors to file new charges.