Zuma’s big date crunch

2008-08-15 00:00

ANC president Jacob Zuma could find himself fighting next year’s general election and simultaneously standing trial for corruption and other charges if the National Prosecuting Authority has its way.

The battle between legal teams for Zuma, French-based arms company Thint and the NPA over the main criminal trial date was yesterday reserved until December 8 — if Zuma’s current application before Judge Chris Nicholson fails.

Technically at least, both the state and defence have the right to appeal any decision reached by Nicholson when he hands down his reserved judgment on September 12.

The NPA yesterday made it clear that it has its heart set on the criminal trial date being fixed for the first day of the court’s second term in 2009 — likely to be from around April 20 onwards.

Although the 2009 court calendar has not yet been finalised, the second term always begins after the Easter recess, and next year Easter falls between April 10 and 13.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has recommended next year’s national and provincial election be held in May as there are fewer public holidays in that month.

The current term of office for MPs ends on April 14, 2009, and elections must be held within 90 days — before July 14. This means the state’s proposed trial date for Zuma falls squarely within next year’s election period, and is likely to be opposed by the Zuma camp.

The NPA and Zuma’s legal teams yesterday held a meeting in Judge Nicholson’s chambers before announcing that they have agreed on a time- line to hear future preliminary applications.

But it appears that at this time they have “agreed to disagree” over the main trial date. Zuma has been placed on terms to notify the court and state in writing by Monday, November 17, if he will agree to proposals by the state that include its proposed trial date.

If Zuma disagrees, he must set out the grounds on which he objects and the dates he proposes.

Applications by Thint and Zuma for a permanent stay of prosecution are to be argued on November 25, 27 and 28.

Asked about the possibility of an early 2009 election, given recent calls by the ANC youth structures for President Thabo Mbeki to resign, IEC KZN commissioner Mawethu Mosery said this is unlikely.

He pointed out that Parliament can remove the president without a general election. He added that an early election will mean the IEC would need at least 90 days to prepare, so if March is being targeted to hold the election, it would have to abandon a major registration drive and the nomination process will have to be fast-tracked so ballot papers can be printed.

An even bigger challenge will be to fulfil the constitutional requirement of getting a two-thirds majority with the national and provincial parliamentary structures so these houses can be dissolved.

Mosery said this will be possible in the national Parliament and in seven provinces where the ANC has a majority, but there could be problems in KZN and the Western Cape.

Mosery said an early election will also result in SA’s multi-party democracy being questioned, opposition parties could garner more votes and there is the issue of parliamentarians and their pensions, many of whom may be reluctant to support an early dissolution of the house as it will affect their pensions.

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