Zuma graft case finally starts, then gets postponed

Jacob Zuma

Former South African president Jacob Zuma.

Photo credit: File | AFP

After more than 15 years of delays, the trial of former South African president Jacob Zuma on hundreds of counts of corruption, fraud, money-laundering and racketeering began on Monday in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, only to be immediately adjourned.

Consequent to an agreement by all parties, the case will resume on May 26 after Zuma's new legal team has had time to make a motion for the recusal of lead prosecutor Billy Downer, who the Zuma camp claims is biased against the ex-president. Exact details of why they want him out will be revealed next week when the trial resumes.

In the past, however, Zuma’s defence team has been accused of using court applications to delay start of the graft trial.

Downer led the successful prosecution in the mid-2000s that saw Zuma's former 'financial advisor' Shabir Shaik found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in jail

Zuma's case has been pending following whistleblower revelations in South Africa's Parliament in the early 2000s by former Parliamentarian for the Pan Africanist Congress, Patricia de Lille, now a minister in President Cyril Ramaphosa's cabinet.

The case was initially struck off the roll during Zuma's nine-year presidency but was reinstated after that decision was ruled as "irrational". Charged alongside Zuma is French arms dealer Thales Group.

The charges

The core allegation is that Zuma received, through Shaik, kickbacks related to a highly controversial late-1990s arms deal involving the multi-billion-dollar purchase of naval vessels and state-of-the-art military jets by South Africa. At the time, Zuma was state deputy president.

He is also facing 16 charges of fraud, money-laundering, corruption and racketeering and faces up to 15 years in jail on each of these major charges, with at least 783 counts involved.

As Zuma faced the judge after nearly an hour in chambers, in which the agreement to allow time for the defence motion against Downer was hammered out, several of his party loyalists - including suspended African National Congress (ANC) secretary general Ace Magashule - were present in court.

Jacob Zuma

Former South African president Jacob Zuma greets supporters in the gallery of the High Court in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa on May 17, 2021.

Photo credit: Rogan Ward | Pool | AFP

Also in court was the state's first and primary witness, Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille, who said after the adjournment that she was "fine" with waiting another week to give her testimony, given that this case had been pending for nearly 20 years.

Outside the court, there was a much smaller crowd than usual. About 20 self-proclaimed ex-military veterans in combat fatigues, ostensibly present to 'defend' Zuma, were joined by some 50 others, mostly wearing ANC regalia in violation of the ruling party's orders.

An ever-defiant Zuma, whose middle name Gedleyihlekisa means 'he who laughs while crushing his enemies' in Zulu, managed a post-hearing address to supporters with the usual band of loyalists joining him on a make-shift stage outside the court house.

He was supported by militants and firebrand figures within the party, including fellow graft-accused Magashule, who also spoke in specific defiance of ANC's determination last week that he not speak on behalf of the party. 

Magashule said he would never be expelled from the ANC, nor would he leave it, and called for a major turn-out of Zuma supporters when the case resumes next week.

Speaking in vernacular, Zuma hit out at those he said were after him and warned that if the laws were 'bent', he was willing to fight.

But he seemed to be making something of a peace gesture toward the ANC leadership in asking his followers only to support him in his court case and not bring in "other matters", nor behave in ways that would make a spectacle of the ruling party.

Zuma's new lawyers said they were ready to finally deal with the long-standing charges against him, barring their issue with prosecutor Downer.

The state too said it was ready, with Judge Piet Koen indicating he wanted final pre-trial motions, along with Zuma's formal plea, entered at resumption of proceedings on Wednesday next week without any further delays.

The case is set down to run until June 20, with further time to be added as required, which is considered likely as that State has lined up 216 additional witnesses beyond the initial testimony to come from De Lille.


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