Just as former president Jacob Zuma signalled that he was finally ready to face the corruption charges against him, the travel restrictions instituted across the country to slow the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus have forced yet another postponement in the trial, which had been scheduled to start on Wednesday.
Following consultations between the state and Zuma’s defence team, an agreement was reached to postpone the matter to June 23.
City Press was reliably told that all parties had agreed that, even though government had eased lockdown restrictions, air travel was still off limits, meaning most of the lawyers in the case would have had to drive to Pietermaritzburg to attend the hearing. Most affected would have been French arms company Thales, which would have been unable to send a representative to the hearing because of the ban on international travel.
A source close to the matter told City Press that the parties involved in the case had submitted the proposal for the postponement and the new date to KwaZulu-Natal Deputy Judge President Mjabuliseni Isaac Madondo, “who is set to advise them shortly on whether he agrees with the new trial date”.
“Should there be a need for parties to attend court, Zuma will not be present; his legal team will represent him in absentia,” said the source.
The trial was expected to go ahead after Zuma’s new attorney, Eric Mabuza, announced the withdrawal this week of an application to the Constitutional Court to appeal against the Supreme Court of Appeal’s ruling that deemed Zuma’s application to have his corruption trial stayed as having no reasonable prospects of success.
This seemed to spell the end of Zuma’s Stalingrad defence, which had resulted in his legal team’s stalling the commencement of the trial at every turn, an accusation said team had denied.
Mabuza said the withdrawal of the Constitutional Court application “paves the way for him [Zuma] to prepare for the trial, and demonstrate he had not benefited from the arms deal corruption or tried to evade a trial”.
“The former president wants to prove his innocence. He wants to remove all obstacles standing in the way of the trial so that he can face his accusers, and for the whole of South Africa to know that he was not involved in the arms deal corruption.”
Constitutional law expert professor Pierre de Vos said the withdrawal of the appeal to the Constitutional Court was a wise move as the application stood no chance of success: “It would not have succeeded because various courts [the Pietermaritzburg High Court and the Supreme Court of Appeal] have already clarified all the points raised in the appeal in favour of the National Prosecuting Authority. So it was not going to succeed and would have been a waste of money.”
De Vos said that, “in any event, the papers submitted for the Constitutional Court appeal were a disaster as they contained an indirect admission of wrongdoing by the former president, because he had said in the papers that he would have testified in the Schabir Shaik case only if he had been granted immunity. This happens only when you admit that you did something wrong. This creates the impression that the former president knows that he did something wrong, which is not politically a good thing.”
Zuma’s lead counsel, Advocate Muzi Sikhakhane, had also questioned the Constitutional Court appeal strategy in correspondence with fellow Zuma lawyers.
In email correspondence, dated April 11, between Sikhakhane and Zuma’s now former attorney, Daniel Mantsha, Sikhakhane questioned why Mantsha, while filing court papers for Zuma’s appeal at the Constitutional Court on March 26, opted to file papers drawn up by Mantsha and Advocate Thabani Masuku, instead of a revised version drafted by him as Zuma’s lead counsel.
He said that, in his view, Mantsha and Masuku had used their own draft arguments “merely because there is a desire [by the pair] to use strong language”, which, Sikhakhane said, “does not assist” Zuma.
He accused Mantsha and Masuku of not doing due diligence in drafting their court papers as they contained “glaring errors”, as well as arguments that had long been dropped by Zuma’s lawyers before they even approached the Supreme Court of Appeal.
This led to the termination of Mantsha’s legal services last month; he had been Zuma’s attorney for two years.
Radical Economic Transformation (RET) group chairperson and Zuma ally Carl Niehaus told City Press that even if Zuma did not go to court on Wednesday, there was a chance that he would address his supporters via social media.
“As you would know, we had in the past planned to go in our numbers to the Pietermaritzburg High Court and show our support for Zuma, but, with the pandemic, we can no longer do this.
“As a result, we are looking at alternatives. While we are still in talks with Zuma and other RET members, I can confirm that there is a strong possibility that the former president might address his supporters on social media on Wednesday,” said Niehaus.