South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) on Tuesday reaffirmed its support for President Thabo Mbeki's sacking of his deputy, Jacob Zuma, following a denial by a judge that he had ever branded the veteran Zulu politician as corrupt.
Zuma was sacked last year after his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of bribery and corruption, blowing a major hole in Zuma's ambition to succeed Mbeki as leader of the ANC next year and head of state in 2009.
Although Shaik was handed a 15-year jail term last week, his original trial judge, Hilary Squires, denied over the weekend that he had ever described the two men as having a "generally corrupt relationship."
The phrase had been widely repeated, including by the appeal court in its verdict on Shaik last week, and Squires' disavowal has therefore reignited debate about whether Zuma was unfairly dismissed.
But in comments carried by the Sapa news agency, ANC Secretary-General Kgalema Motlanthe effectively slapped down calls for Zuma's reinstatement.
"The ANC accepts and supports the decision of President Thabo Mbeki to release Deputy President Jacob Zuma from his duties in government following due consideration of the ruling in the Shaik trial," Motlanthe said.
Zuma still retains his post as deputy ANC leader and is regarded as the frontrunner to succeed Mbeki, even though he has yet to formally declare his candidacy.
However while Zuma retains strong support from the youth wing of the party, Motlanthe's comments are likely to damage the former deputy president's efforts to banish the whiff of corruption and highlight the work he still faces to win over the ANC hierarchy.
Motlanthe added that the misattribution of Squires' comments "should prompt reflection and critical self-examination among the media, commentators and others involved in disseminating information."
Meanwhile, the ANC's youth wing said on Tuesday any move to press new graft charges against Zuma could trigger mass protests.
Zuma was charged with corruption last year, but the case collapsed after lengthy delays and prosecutors have said they may file fresh charges.
Supporters of the beleaguered Zuma like the youth league have long said he is the victim of a political conspiracy.
ANC Youth League President Fikile Mbalula said the denial by Squires that he had ruled that Shaik and Zuma had a "generally corrupt relationship" had "created incalculable doubts about the independence of the judiciary."
Asked if the League supported a threat by powerful labor federation COSATU to mobilize mass protests if prosecutors were to press new charges against Zuma, Mbalula said:
"The masses don't need to be mobilized, they always stand against injustice. If they see any injustice they will react ... and we will be an integral part of those people who say no to injustice."
The African National Congress is still struggling to heal deep rifts in the ruling party created by Zuma's sacking. Zuma and his leftist supporters in the ANC's labor, youth and communist allies allege a political plot to prevent Zuma from becoming president. Zuma says he is a victim of trial by media.