Why Jacob Zuma is in such deep legal trouble

Former South African President Jacob Zuma.

Photo credit: Emmanuel Croset | AFP

Former South African president Jacob Zuma again this week snubbed a court by not turning up for his many-times delayed, decades-old corruption and racketeering trial.

He has escaped further censure for now but remains in a deep legal hole.

Zuma's legal team argued before High Court Judge Piet Koen in Pietermaritzburg, capital of his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, that due to illness he did not have to attend.

Zuma was three weeks ago controversially granted medical parole after being sentenced to 15 months behind bars by the Constitutional Court for contempt of its orders. He had served just 58 days, and the decision is being challenged.

Although the state says Zuma is fit for trial, citing an assessment of his medical records by its own experts, his lawyers insist he is under treatment for an undisclosed but allegedly life-threatening illness

This, they say, renders him unable to attend proceedings and he is unlikely to do so for at least six months. Zuma refused to undergo a state-appointed medical examination.

In what was seen as a mini-victory for Zuma, the case was again postponed until late October.

Not going away

But despite vociferous arguments by Zuma's lawyers, ostensibly to get rid of the lead prosecutor for alleged bias, his legal manoeuvrings will not see the trial 'go away'.

The case, which has been on and off since 2005, arises from alleged kickbacks from a late 1990s corruption-tainted multibillion-dollar arms deal.

It was struck from the court roll under the influence of Zuma loyalists while he was president, but was reinstated subsequently, with his lawyers using every means available to avoid the trial proceedings in what has become a standard delaying tactic.

Zuma's latest strategy of attempting to get rid of the lead prosecutor is considered a delay tactic  in legal circles.

The former President was the named co-conspirator of his former 'financial advisor' Schabir Shaik in the latter's 2005 trial. The case resulted in the Durban businessman being found to have played a key role in organising kickbacks to Zuma, following South Africa's purchase of French-made Valour class frigates for its navy. He was sentenced to 15 years behind bars.

But having served just a fraction of his sentence, Shaik, supposedly at death's door, was released on medical grounds. He was seen shortly thereafter to be hale and hearty and playing golf – even chasing off photographers while wielding a golf club.

Zuma will not be able to get away with something similar, however, mainly because he is not president any longer. The tide of corruption has turned against him under President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Political opponents and civil society bodies are determined to see his medical parole overturned and that he be returned to a prison cell.

Three leading medical specialists appointed by the state to assess his fitness for trial have found he is indeed fit for the process, fuelling the controversy around his early release from his contempt jail sentence.

His release contradicted the recommendations of the Correctional Services (prisons) medical parole board appointed to make such decisions.

Parole could be overturned

Legal analysts agree broadly that the grounds for Zuma's early parole appear weak and it is likely to be overturned.

Zuma was admitted to a private hospital almost immediately after he had handed himself over to serve his 15-month contempt sentence at the newly constructed Estcourt prison, a state-of-the-art facility.

This move was on the advice of his SA National Defence Force Military Health Service doctors, the same team that is saying he is unfit to stand trial.

On September 5, Zuma was released on medical parole, allegedly due to his "deteriorating medical condition", by the national commissioner of Correctional Services, Arthur Fraser, a known Zuma loyalist and once his hand-picked spy boss, contradicting the determination of his department's own medical parole experts.

The following day Zuma was admitted to a Pretoria hospital for "extensive medical evaluation and care", which had to do with his still-undisclosed "medical condition" that required an "extensive emergency procedure", according to his doctors.

That procedure had allegedly been delayed for 18 months because of "compounding" legal matters and his incarceration.

But even with his medical fitness to stand trial put to one side for now, Zuma still faces an uphill battle in a case in which his collaborator was found guilty on exactly the same facts, and sentenced to a lengthy jail term.

Zuma faces 783 counts on 16 charges of fraud, corruption, money-laundering and racketeering. His co-accused, French arms company Thales, faces four counts.

Zondo Commission

Beyond these problems, Zuma is about to face another court date, this time for the first contempt charge laid by then Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.

Zuma had walked out on Zondo after being summonsed to undergo cross examination in the three-year-long investigation into system corruption that developed during his nine-year tenure as SA president.

Zondo had asked the Constitutional Court to give Zuma two years behind bars when it considered what punishment the former president deserved for flouting the Concourt's ruling that he must return to Zondo's state-capture inquiry following that walkout.

The state is likely to be pushing for much the same sentence in the Zondo commission complaint, now fully 'investigated' and ready for trial. A guilty verdict is virtually certain since Zuma has no legally meaningful defence and committed his walkout on nationally broadcast TV.

Then there is the imminent report coming from Zondo summarising his commission's findings, with Zuma having had 37 witnesses testify to his role in overseeing and allowing state capture, a system of influence-peddling, kickbacks and corruption that cost SA an estimated $67 billion in looted state funds and fiscal damage.

Zondo is highly unlikely to find anything but that Zuma played a key role in the grand thievery that became the hallmark of his tenure in office.

While Zondo's commission cannot itself lay further charges against Zuma, it will almost beyond doubt, through the recommendations of criminal charges against him, set the scene for numerous further criminal complaints against him.

Many of those complaints are repeats of the sort of conduct that he is already facing up to in his current corruption trial.

Meanwhile, Zuma's Foundation has called for South Africans and those outside of the country who support him to contribute to his legal funds.

Zuma owes some $2 million in outstanding fees, incurred in numerous prior court outings designed to put off and delay proceedings against him.

He is running up another costly legal bill in his corruption case, with multiple senior counsel and assistants engaged in what legal analysts said was "just another delaying tactic" designed to disrupt the state's case.

Zuma back home

Although Zuma, who has today been confirmed to be back at his homestead of Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal, may be happy with this week's developments, the view among the legal fraternity is that he could go back behind bars.

If not for the Concourt contempt matter in which his medical parole is being legally challenged, then he will be jailed for Zondo's contempt matter and, beyond these, his current corruption trial, and likely further corruption-related charges arising from Zondo's commission findings.

Zuma's only real hope of escape from spending significant time behind bars is if he is actually dying or is seriously ill with a major condition that the state agrees, through its own medical assessment, is a reality.

All the sources the Nation spoke to said that while Zuma does appear to have some "fairly serious" medical conditions, they are not currently overtly life-threatening.

Also, even if he has once again bought himself time by playing the "ill-health" card, he will, sooner or later, have to face the legal music for conduct he is alleged to have engaged in for decades, and which he has also ducked answering for, over decades.