The corruption trial of South Africa’s ex-president Jacob Zuma resumes on Monday despite deadly violence that swept the nation after his imprisonment for contempt of court.
Zuma faces 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering related to a 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats, and military gear from five European firms when he was South Africa’s deputy president.
He is accused of pocketing four million rand ($277,000) in bribes from one of the firms, French defence giant 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. The 79-year-old Zuma appeared in person for the opening and said he was innocent.
Thales also pleaded not guilty while the next hearing comes up on July 19.
But things took a nasty turn when on June 29, Zuma was found guilty of contempt of South Africa’s top court for snubbing graft investigators probing his tenure as president. He was jailed a week later.
The incarceration sparked protests in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, KZN, which snowballed into a week of deadly outbreak of looting and arson that spread to the economic hub Johannesburg, claiming over 200 lives.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who came to office promising to curb graft, said the riots were a “coordinated and well-planned attack” on the country’s young democracy.
“Using the pretext of a political grievance, those behind these acts have sought to provoke a popular insurrection,” Ramaphosa said on Friday night.
Monday’s hearing could reignite tensions that had eased late last week, analysts warn.
“People will be watching the behaviour of judges,” said Sipho Seepe, a fellow of the University of Zululand in KZN.
“If they feel justice is not done, they will protest,” he said.
Monday’s hearing will focus on an application by Zuma’s legal team to recuse chief prosecutor Billy Downer for allegedly leaking information to the media.
“We will argue vigorously for the application to be dismissed,” National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga told AFP.
The trial will be heard virtually to “avoid disruption”, said Mhaga.
Zuma, once dubbed the “Teflon president”, is meanwhile seeking to reverse his 15-month jail sentence.
He was arrested for disobeying a Constitutional Court order to testify before a judicial panel probing the plunder of state coffers during his nine-year rule.
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 allegedly allowed to choose cabinet ministers.
Zuma only testified once in July 2019.
South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, ANC, party forced Zuma — who is a member of the country’s dominant Zulu ethnic group — to resign in 2018 after mounting graft scandals.
But Zuma has retained a fervent support base within the ANC and among the general public, viewed by many as a “people’s man” and a defender of the poor.