"I have been advised — and believe — that monitoring and interception of telephone conversations … has been conducted by a state agency. I have also been informed that the lawyers of Mr Jacob Zuma have such recordings in their possession," former National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) head Bulelani Ngcuka told the Times newspaper.
Meanwhile, Business Day, citing some of the people who were monitored, said the conversations recorded included several prominent players in the Zuma saga which involves graft charges related to a multibillion-dollar government arms deal plagued by corruption claims.
The phone conversations are between Mbeki, who was axed from office last year by a pro-Zuma ANC national executive committee, and former Scorpions head Leonard McCarthy, reported Business Day.
Others whose conversations were recorded included Ngcuka, and businessmen Saki Macozoma and Mzi Khumalo, said Business Day.
"If it is suggested — as I believe that it is — that I was involved in any conversations, the objective of which was to manipulate the National Prosecuting Authority or use it as a tool to frustrate Zuma’s ambition to occupy the highest office in the land by prosecuting him, I am confident that, if any authentic record of my conversations with whomsoever is produced, no evidence would be found that would implicate me in such a conspiracy," Ngcuka told the Times.
Business Day said the content of the tapes was not known but that any conversation between Mbeki and McCarthy could again raise questions about claims of interference in the Zuma case.
The calls were reported to have been tapped just before and after the African National Congress’ Polokwane conference in December 2007 when Zuma was elected the new leader of the ruling party after a closely contested race with Mbeki.
Ngcuka told Business Day that the interception and monitoring and the possession of such material by private individuals was illegal.
"It is a matter of grave concern that in a democratic state — which has an entrenched Bill of Rights, which among others, safeguards the rights of the citizens to privacy — you could have surveillance by a state agency and the product of that surveillance be made available to the lawyers of an accused person in a criminal trial," said Ngcuka.
Zuma’s lawyer, Michael Hulley, could not be reached for comment. The latest news came amid rumours that the NPA had been presented with new evidence by Zuma’s lawyers that might see fraud and corruption charges dropped against him, clearing the way for him to become South Africa’s next president without the charges hanging over his head.
Opposition parties have been quick to hit out at the reported intention of the NPA to drop the charges.
Allan Boesak, the Western Cape premier candidate for the Congress of the People, warned on Wednesday that dropping the charges would be "a total indictment of our institution of democracy".
Despite a denial from the NPA spokesperson that any such decision has yet been made, Boesak warned: "[It] will represent a travesty and would smack of pre-election manoeuvring …
"The consequences for South Africa will be dire and the reputation and credibility of our country will be tainted substantially both nationally and internationally."
Patricia de Lille, leader of the Independent Democrats — and also the Western Cape premier candidate — said that if the reports are true, it is a sign of things to come from the crowd that voted Zuma in at Polokwane.
"If the charges are dropped the biggest casualties will be the visions, values and ideals of the struggle, which were to build a democratic society where all of us were equal before the law," De Lille said.
She added: "Our country’s fight against crime will be further weakened if the message is sent to our people that when it comes to justice, some of us are more equal than others.
"When you have a situation where criminals are justifying their actions because leaders in the ruling party have charges dropped simply based on their position, then you are facing a judicial nightmare, where there are different types of justice for different people."
Bantu Holomisa, leader of the United Democratic Movement, insisted that Zuma must have his day in court. "The rule of law depends on all being equal before the law," he said. – Sapa