“The arms deal was the most graphic loss of innocence of post-apartheid South Africa and it presaged the corruption we are seeing today,” said David Lewis, the executive director of Corruption Watch, a nonprofit organization based in Johannesburg. “This is the first time we are seeing accountability in the arms deal.”
Mr. Lewis called the prosecutor’s decision “significant,” and added: “The biggest cause of corruption is the impunity of the powerful, so this does send the message that, as long as it may take, somebody at the highest level can be held accountable.”
But Mr. Lewis said it would have been more significant if it had been taken while Mr. Zuma was still president, adding that it could be regarded as “victor’s judgment.”
Prosecutors said Mr. Zuma was informed of the decision to bring charges hours before they were announced. But he did not immediately comment.
Mr. Zuma, who was the leader of the party and the nation’s deputy president when the arms deal was finalized in 1999. He has used legal maneuvers and the power of the presidency to avoid prosecution for years.
He was originally indicted in 2007 on 18 charges of corruption, fraud and racketeering, including accepting bribes from a military contractor. At the time, Mr. Zuma, who has always maintained his innocence, was forced to resign as deputy president by President Thabo Mbeki. The case became entwined in a power struggle between the two men.
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The arms deal, made by the government of Nelson Mandela in the mid to late 1990s, involved the purchase of naval vessels, submarines, fighter jets and other equipment from European nations. The deal totaled 30 billion rand, or between $3 billion to $5 billion at the time.
Mr. Zuma’s supporters have long argued that accusations of corruption in the case were politically motivated and that he was singled out while other A.N.C. officials implicated in the deal were never charged.
He successfully resurrected his bid for the presidency after the chief prosecutor dropped the charges against him in 2009, accusing his own officials of political interference.
The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, challenged the chief prosecutor’s decision. But Mr. Zuma successfully avoided prosecution during his presidency.
In 2016, South Africa’s High Court judged that the chief prosecutor’s decision to set aside the charges was “irrational” — a ruling that was upheld by the Supreme Court last year. Legal experts said it would have been difficult for Mr. Abrahams, who was considered close to Mr. Zuma, to not reinstate the charges against the former president.
Pierre de Vos, a constitutional scholar at the University of Cape Town, said the corruption case against Mr. Zuma could yet drag on for years. Mr. Zuma could still mount legal challenges to the chief prosecutor’s decision, including eventually going to the Constitutional Court.
“It’s been the former president’s strategy to use every legal loophole to actually avoid having his case being heard in court,” Mr. de Vos said. “If he has the money for lawyers, he could stay out of court forever.”
In Parliament, Mr. Ramaphosa said this week that the government has spent $1.3 million on Mr. Zuma’s defense in this case. Opposition politicians, who have argued that Mr. Zuma should be forced to pay his own legal costs in this case because it preceded his presidency, said the expenses amount to several times more.
Mr. Ramaphosa said that the government will continue to pay Mr. Zuma’s legal fees but that the former president would have to reimburse the state if he is found guilty.