A top appeals court has ruled South Africa's president acted improperly when he appointed the national prosecutor in a case that has been central to a debate about corruption at high levels of government and political meddling in the fight against crime.
"The president will study the judgment, obtain legal advice and thereafter decide on what course to take," President Jacob Zuma's office said in a terse statement hours after the Supreme Court of Appeals issued its ruling Thursday.
The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, went to court to challenge lawyer Menzi Simelane's appointment as director of public prosecutions, saying he was unfit for the job and that Zuma, who has faced corruption charges, appointed him because he needed an ally in the prosecutor's office.
"This judgment is a victory for our constitutional democracy," the Democratic Alliance said in a statement.
Zuma can appeal. The Democratic Alliance is calling on him to instead fire Simelane and "appoint somebody who will enjoy the respect and confidence of the legal profession, the judiciary and the people of South Africa."
Just two weeks before the 2009 elections, prosecutors, acknowledging the case had been tainted by political meddling, dropped corruption charges against Zuma. Zuma went on to lead his African National Congress to victory and become president. He appointed Simelane soon after taking office.
A previous national prosecutor, Vusi Pikoli, was pushed out after he pursued corruption charges against the national police chief and Zuma. Pikoli had headed a special crime-busting unit known as the Scorpions that the ANC-dominated parliament dismantled.
Zuma has maintained he was innocent of accusations he sought bribes to thwart an investigation into wrongdoing by a French arms company involved in a massive weapons deal in the late 1990s. The accusations were linked to an international scandal in which tens of millions of dollars allegedly were paid in bribes to secure contracts in the multibillion-dollar arms deal soon after democracy came to South Africa in 1994.
Prosecutors said their case against the man who is now president was solid _ his financial adviser was convicted of soliciting bribes for Zuma from arms dealers. But prosecutors also said key colleagues had abused their powers in pursuing the case by trying to time an announcement of charges against Zuma in a failed attempt to undermine his bid to become party president.
Zuma this year announced that an independent panel of judges with sweeping powers will investigate the arms deal scandal.
Zuma has been accused of acting slowly to confront corruption in his government. After months of calls to act, in October he suspended his national police chief and fired a Cabinet minister after the two were caught up in a scandal over leasing a police headquarters building. Zuma also fired another minister who an independent investigator said used taxpayer money to visit a girlfriend imprisoned in Switzerland.