Pietermaritzburg | The trial of former South African President Jacob Zuma, in a more than 20-year-old bribe case, resumed under tight security on Monday after more than a week of riots that rocked the country.
The trigger for the violence, which began on July 9, was the imprisonment of Mr. Zuma, 79, in a separate case where he was convicted of contempt of justice. Looting and fires, initially concentrated in Zulu country (east), had spread to Johannesburg, the largest city and the economic heart of the country.
Monday morning, soldiers and police were positioned in number in the center of Pietermaritzburg, the capital of the province of Kwazulu-Natal (east), where the court is located, which was yet to conduct a virtual hearing, according to AFP on the spot. Adjacent streets were also squared off and a helicopter patrolled the area.
Mr. Zuma, dark suit and red tie, appeared on screen from his prison in Estcourt, less than a hundred km away. The trial, as often in South Africa, was televised.
Mr. Zuma’s supporters, in his native region, usually rally every time he travels to support their champion. They are accused of having fomented the chaos of the last days, which President Cyril Ramaphosa called an orchestrated attempt to destabilize the country.
Zuma’s attorneys wrote to the court on Sunday, clarifying that they planned to challenge the potential hearing, arguing that it violated their client’s constitutional rights. They were to ask for a postponement of the trial.
Numerous restrictions were put in place at the end of June to curb a particularly deadly third wave of coronavirus in South Africa, prompting courts to hold hearings via Zoom or Teams.
But here, Judge Piet Koen clarified that this decision was linked to instability in the province. Virtuality also makes it possible not to have to take Mr. Zuma out of his cell to take him to court.
“Our lawyers are ready”
Mr. Zuma faces sixteen counts of fraud, corruption and racketeering linked to the purchase, in 1999, of military equipment from five European armaments companies, while he was vice-president.
He is accused of having pocketed more than four million rand (or 235,000 euros at the current rate), in particular from the French group Thales which was one of the companies awarded the juicy contract with a global value of around 2.8 billion euros. euros.
The French defense giant is also being prosecuted for corruption and money laundering. Mr. Zuma, like Thales, has always denied these accusations.
The foundation of Mr. Zuma had already demanded Saturday a physical hearing or a postponement of the resumption of the trial. “If we can agree on a face-to-face hearing, our lawyers are ready,” Zuma spokesman Mzwanele Manyi told AFP on Sunday. “Otherwise we must postpone the hearing, even for a week, when conditions in the country will be more serene.”
Mr. Zuma, despite numerous corruption scandals that marred his presidency, retains real influence, including within the ANC, the historic ruling party.
This trial has already been postponed several times, the former president multiplying the appeals. At the previous hearing in May, Zuma pleaded not guilty, before the proceedings were quickly adjourned.
His lawyers are also calling for the disqualification of the prosecution lawyer, Me Billy Downer, accusing him of bias. The prosecution plans to call more than 200 witnesses during the trial.
Mr. Zuma was forced to resign in 2018 after the revelation of a series of scandals. Two years earlier, a damning report detailed in particular how a sibling of businessmen of Indian origin, the Gupta, had plundered public resources under his presidency (2009-2018).