updated 4/6/2009 8:57:52 AM ET 2009-04-06T12:57:52

South Africa's top prosecutor said Monday that he was dropping corruption charges against Jacob Zuma, the man likely to become the country's president after this month's national elections.

Mokotedi Mpshe said the process had been manipulated for political reasons and that it was "neither possible nor desirable" to continue prosecuting Zuma, who leads South Africa's governing party.

Mpshe said the prosecutor in charge of the case had colluded with a former head of prosecutions to time the case's announcement in a way they hoped would undermine Zuma's campaign to be elected head of the African National Congress.

Monday's announcement followed fevered speculation in South African media that the charges would be dropped. After the decision was announced, hundreds of people ran through downtown Johannesburg blowing whistles as car horns blared.

Zuma, 66, was accused of accepting bribes to thwart a probe into wrongdoing by a French arms company. He has faced the possibility of trial since 2003, when prosecutors first said there was enough evidence to go forward.

Zuma has maintained he is innocent and claimed he was being persecuted for political reasons. He has remained the presidential candidate for the African National Congress and is expected to ride his party's dominance to power in the elections set for April 22.

Eagerly awaited decision
Monday's 90-minute news conference was carried live on national television and radio. People opened their car doors and turned up their radios so that passers-by could hear the decision being announced. Others watched the announcement on big-screen televisions in coffee bars.

Hundreds waved ANC flags in a downtown Johannesburg square, dancing and singing to Zuma's theme song "Bring Me My Machine Gun."

"I'm very happy for the decision, hoping that this gives our president what he needs for us to go forward," said Victress Iwabi, an ANC town councilor. "I think under Zuma people will have decent work, free and quality education, quality health care for all. And we are going to defeat crime."

Zuma was initially charged in 2005, but that case was dismissed on a technicality in 2006. He was charged again in December 2007, just days after beating out Thabo Mbeki to be elected ANC president.

High Court Judge Chris Nicholson dismissed the case in September, implying the charges were the result of political meddling by Mbeki.

Support from impoverished blacks
Impoverished black South Africans embrace Zuma as a man they believe understands their struggle. Born in the rural Zulu heartland, Zuma lost his father when he was a young boy. His mother worked as a maid in Durban, and by the age of 15 Zuma was doing odd jobs to help her.

He joined the ANC in 1959 and was arrested in 1963, convicted of conspiring to overthrow the white-minority government and sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island, the same prison where Nelson Mandela spent so many years. He left South Africa in 1975 and spent 12 years in exile.

In 2006, Zuma was acquitted of raping a family friend. But he outraged AIDS activists by testifying that he had unprotected, consensual sex with the HIV-positive woman and then took a shower in the belief that it would protect him from the virus.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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