On Monday, a corruption lawsuit involving former South African President Jacob Zuma and the French firm Thales over a $2 billion weapons deal was postponed until May 26, and Zuma’s lawyer said he would plead not guilty when the trial eventually begins.
Zuma’s trial, which was set to start on Monday, was again postponed after his newly named defense team expressed reservations about the lead prosecutor and said it would demand his recusal from the case.
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Zuma’s counsel, Thabani Masuku, told the Pietermaritzburg High Court that when the case is heard again on May 26, he will enter a not guilty plea.
The case is taking place as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s anti-corruption campaign gains traction, and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is beset by infighting as top officials accused of corruption battle back.
In court, the bespectacled Zuma, dressed in a blue suit and tie, appeared relaxed, giving thumbs up and waving to supporters. A crowd of supporters waving the green, gold, and black ANC flag sang Zuma’s praises outside the court, including suspended ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, a Zuma supporter.
Sacked as deputy state president in 2005 after his former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was jailed for corruption in the same arms deal, Zuma swiftly regained political power and spent almost 10 years as president before a judge reinstated the case in 2018.
Zuma is accused of accepting 500,000 rands ($35,000) annually from Thales from 1999 as a bribe, in exchange for protecting the company from an investigation into the deal following whistle-blower revelations by a lawmaker in parliament that same year.
The alleged bribe forms part of a broader corrupt relationship the state argues existed between Zuma, Shaik and his firm Nkobi Group, as well as Thales. Nkobi Group was the local joint venture partner to Thales, then known as Thompson-CSF, which was part of a consortium that won a 2.6 billion rands bid to provide combat suites for new navy frigates.
Zuma, who was acquitted of a 2005 rape charge where he admitted having unprotected sex with his HIV-positive accuser, currently faces 18 charges, including racketeering, corruption, and fraud. Zuma, who has said the arms deal case is politically motivated, and Thales have consistently denied any wrongdoing.
The case has been postponed numerous times as Zuma, who has described the trial as a “political witch-hunt”, lodged a string of motions to have the charges dropped. Last month, all of Zuma’s lawyers quit without explanation.
He struck a defiant note after Monday’s postponement, telling supporters outside the court: “If I were to reveal the things I know about other people, it would be a disaster.”
“You can’t have a case for so many years. That the charges keep changing and changing. But I don’t want to say too much, we will say what we have to say in court,” Zuma said, before leading supporters in singing his trademark Umshini Wam (bring my machinegun) anti-apartheid struggle song.
The trial is expected to last from May until June, the court has said previously, with more than 200 witnesses lined up for the state.