Corruption trial of former South African president Zuma resumes

Monday's hearing, to be held online, could reignite violence that had eased by the weekend

The long-running corruption trial of South Africa's jailed former president Jacob Zuma resumed online on Monday, even as violence swept the nation after his imprisonment in an unrelated case.

Zuma faces 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering related to the 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and military gear from five European arms firms when he was deputy president.

He is accused of taking bribes from one of the companies, French defence entity Thales, which has been charged with corruption and money laundering.

The trial started in May after numerous postponements and delays, as Zuma's legal team worked fervently to have the charges dropped.

Zuma, 79, who appeared in person for the opening, proclaimed his innocence.

Thales also pleaded not guilty, and the next hearing was set for Monday.

Hundreds killed in riots

On June 29, Zuma was separately found guilty of contempt of South Africa's top court for snubbing graft investigators probing his time as president. He was jailed a week later.

South Africa was then plunged into chaos, with looting and rioting erupting in Zuma's home region KwaZulu-Natal as well as Gauteng province. More than 200 people have died in the violence.

Many of those killed in the rioting were crushed during chaotic rampages in shops. More than 2,500 people have been arrested for theft and vandalism. Order was restored after 2,500 troops sere sent to assist police.

The unrest was widely seen as at least partially in response to Zuma's imprisonment.

Monday's hearing, which will be held online, could reignite tensions that had eased by the weekend, analysts warn.

"People will be watching the behaviour of judges," said Sipho Seepe, a fellow of the University of Zululand in KwaZulu-Natal.

"If they feel justice is not done, they will protest."

Monday's hearing will focus on an application by Zuma's legal team for chief prosecutor Billy Downer to recuse himself from the case over claims he leaked information to the media.

The National Prosecuting Authority said it would "vigorously" oppose the application.

Despite the digital staging of the hearing, Zuma supporters are likely to gather in front of the Pietermaritzburg High Court as they have for past hearings.

Zuma's lawyers claim the virtual format is unconstitutional and have applied for the trial to be adjourned.

His foundation confirmed on Twitter late on Sunday that the former president would attend Monday's hearing online "for the postponement application of his trial".

Zuma and his backers have repeatedly dismissed scrutiny of the former president's conduct as politically motivated and warned his jailing would spark unrest.

But they deny being behind the recent turmoil.

Zuma, once called the "Teflon president", is meanwhile seeking to overturn his 15-month jail sentence.

Trial on Zoom

Zuma was arrested for disobeying a Constitutional Court order to give evidence before a judicial panel probing corruption during his presidency.

He has cast himself as the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt in his attempts to evade prosecution over more than a decade.

Wearing a dark suit and red tie, Zuma said nothing while his lawyer Dali Mpofu argued that the trial in the Pietermaritzburg High Court should be postponed for Zuma to appear in person.

Mr Mpofu said Zuma had not been able to properly consult his legal team after handing himself over in the early hours of July 8 to start a 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court.

Lawyers for the state on Monday opposed Zuma's application for a postponement, arguing it was "another delaying tactic", court papers showed.

Ramaphosa calls for unity

Protests over the weekend initially flared in KwaZulu-Natal before escalating into arson and looting in other provinces, fuelled by anger over the poverty and inequality that persist nearly three decades after the end of white minority rule in 1994.

Assessing the damage done to South Africa’s economy by the unrest, President Cyril Ramaphosa said Monday that the nation has already begun recovering from the violence.

“But we are not only rebuilding our country after the destruction of the past week; we are rebuilding after the devastation of decades of dispossession and exploitation,” Mr Ramaphosa wrote in his weekly letter to the nation.

“We need to fundamentally transform our economy and our society, deepening our efforts to create employment, lift millions out of poverty and ensure that the country’s wealth is shared among all its people,” he said.

“The events of the last week are a stark reminder of how deep the problems are and how far we still have to go. These events must propel us to act with greater purpose and speed.”

Updated: July 19th 2021, 3:30 PM