Ex-Leader of South Africa Legislature Is Arrested on Corruption Charges

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The lawmaker who resigned as the leader of South Africa’s top house of Parliament this week was arrested on Thursday on charges that she had taken bribes in her earlier role as defense minister.

The arrest of the lawmaker, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, followed a tense, weekslong standoff with law enforcement officials over a corruption case that has dealt a blow to the governing African National Congress two months before a critical national election.

The A.N.C. faces the threat of losing its absolute majority in the national government for the first time since the end of apartheid 30 years ago when voters go to the polls on May 29. Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula’s arrest exposes the party to one of its greatest vulnerabilities — charges of corruption.

Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula, who had fought against the apartheid regime as an A.N.C. activist in exile, maintained her innocence on Wednesday in a news release announcing her resignation as speaker of the National Assembly. Part of her decision to step down, she said, was to “protect the image of our organization, the African National Congress.”

“My resignation is in no way an indication or admission of guilt regarding the allegations being leveled against me,” she added. “I have made this decision in order to uphold the integrity and sanctity of our Parliament.”

A.N.C. leaders have faced a litany of corruption allegations over the years that have ignited public furor as the country and many of its citizens struggle economically. Most notably, investigators found that Jacob Zuma, a former president of the party and the nation, oversaw the widespread looting of state coffers to enrich himself, his family and his friends.

Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula is one of the highest-ranking A.N.C. officials to be accused of criminal charges for conduct in office, after Mr. Zuma, who faces charges for actions that occurred a generation ago, when he was vice president. (Since departing office, he has left the A.N.C. and formed his own party.)

But in some ways, Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula’s case provides an opportunity for the party to show that it is tackling potential wrongdoing among its members.

Under the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, the A.N.C. has said it is aggressively working to root out corruption in its ranks. In a statement released after Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula’s resignation on Wednesday, the A.N.C. seemed to express relief that she had voluntarily stepped down.

Had she not, the party would have faced the prospect of enforcing a new rule requiring its members to step aside from their party and government posts while facing criminal charges.

“We value her commitment to maintaining the image of our organization, as it reflects our principles of organizational renewal that promote proactive responsibility-taking among members,” the A.N.C. statement said.

Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula, 67, was the minister of defense and military veterans from 2014 to 2021. During her final year on the job, some of the worst rioting of South Africa’s democratic era erupted in parts of the country, and Mr. Ramaphosa called it an attempted insurrection. Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula publicly contradicted her boss, saying that the violence was not an insurrection. Shortly afterward, she was removed as minister and became the National Assembly speaker.

She has argued that the prosecution’s case against her is a politically motivated attempt to tarnish her reputation and the A.N.C.’s during campaign season.

Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula is accused of soliciting more than 2.3 million rand ($123,000) worth of bribes from a defense contractor in exchange for awarding contracts between 2016 and 2019. The police raided her home last month. After the raid, she filed an application in court making the unusual demand that prosecutors turn over their evidence to her before her arrest, arguing that their case was weak.

In a court affidavit challenging her arrest, Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula said that prosecutors were abusing their powers for political purposes, as the apartheid-era government did. She feared, she said, “that this practice has once again reared its ugly head and, if not stopped, carries the real risk of further fraying the constitutional fabric of our young democracy.”

Justice Sulet Potterill dismissed Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula’s efforts to prevent her arrest, saying on Tuesday that “the floodgates will be opened” for every suspect to ask the court to stop his or her arrest “on speculation that there is a weak case.”

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