The long corruption trial of jailed ex-South African President Jacob Zuma resumes Monday despite deadly violence that swept the country after his incarceration in an unrelated case.
Zuma faces 16 counts of fraud, corruption and racketeering in connection with a 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and military equipment from five European arms companies while he was vice -President of South Africa.
He is accused of pocketing four million rand ($ 277,000) in bribes from one of the companies, French defense giant Thales, which has been accused of corruption and money laundering.
The trial began in May after numerous postponements and delays, as Zuma’s legal team worked earnestly to have the charges dropped.
Zuma, 79, showed up in person for the opening and said he was innocent.
Thales has also pleaded not guilty and the next hearing has been set for July 19.
But things took a turn for the worse when Zuma was found in contempt of South Africa’s highest court on June 29 for snubbing corruption investigators investigating his tenure as president. He was jailed a week later.
The incarceration sparked protests in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), which snowballed in a week of deadly looting and arson that spilled over to Johannesburg’s economic hub, leaving more than 200 dead.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who came to power promising to fight corruption, said the riots were a “coordinated and well-planned attack” on the country’s fledgling democracy.
“Under the pretext of a political grievance, those behind these acts sought to provoke a popular uprising,” Ramaphosa said Friday evening.
Monday’s hearing could rekindle tensions that subsided at the end of last week, analysts warn.
– Stability at stake –
“People will be watching the behavior of the judges,” Sipho Seepe, a fellow from the University of Zululand told KZN.
“If they feel that justice is not being served, they will protest,” he said.
Monday’s hearing will focus on a request by Zuma’s legal team to challenge Chief Prosecutor Billy Downer for allegedly leaking information to the media.
“We will vigorously plead for the application to be rejected,” National Prosecution Authority spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga told AFP.
The trial will take place virtually to “avoid disruption,” Mhaga said.
Zuma and his supporters have repeatedly denounced all such investigations as politically motivated and warned that his imprisonment would spark unrest.
But they deny being at the origin of the recent turmoil.
Carl Niehaus, a close friend of Zuma, told reporters this week that there had been no “coordinated campaign to lead to looting and violence.”
“There is however an uprising of people who are deeply concerned and angry at [his] imprisonment. ”
– ‘Ride the storm’ –
Zuma, once nicknamed the “president of Teflon”, is seeking to overturn his 15-month prison sentence.
He was arrested for disobeying a Constitutional Court order to testify before a judicial panel investigating the looting of state coffers during his nine-year reign.
Most of the transgressions investigated by the commission involve three brothers from a wealthy Indian business family, the Guptas, who won lucrative government contracts and were reportedly allowed to choose ministers.
Zuma only testified once in July 2019.
South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), forced Zuma – who is a member of the country’s dominant ethnic group, the Zulus – to resign in 2018 after growing corruption scandals.
But Zuma retained a fervent base of support within the ANC and among the general public, considered by many to be a “man of the people” and an advocate for the poor.
Ralph Mathekga, author of “When Zuma Goes,” said judges in the corruption case would not give in to “political pressure”.
“Failure to prosecute Mr. Zuma will have serious implications for the rule of law,” he told AFP. “Justice will have to ride the storm. “
© 2021 AFP