Fifteen years since his onetime financial adviser Schabir Shaik first faced prosecution on charges former president Jacob Zuma himself launched his last ditch attempt to avoid what he has always asked for: his day in court.
In a week filled with drama, legal theatrics and choice quotes, Zuma’s defence team did battle with the National Prosecuting Authority’s advocates in front of a full bench of the KwaZulu-Natal high court in Pietermaritzburg.
Zuma, together with French arms company Thales, are seeking a permanent stay of prosecution. They are facing charges of fraud, money laundering, corruption and racketeering.
The crowds of Zuma supporters gathered outside the court everyday had considerably dwindled from the intimidating throngs that used to come out in support during previous appearances.
Even the high profile support had shrunk to ultra loyalists like former ministers Mosebenzi Zwane and David van Rooyen, the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association’s camouflaged Carl Niehaus and some KwaZulu-Natal ANC leaders. Zuma’s son, Duduzane Zuma, was also on hand to lend support.
The reduced distraction meant much more of the focus could be inside the courtroom where some of South Africa’s best known legal gladiators were throwing lethal punches at each other.
An unmissable sight were the mountain of files stacked behind the full bench of judges presiding over the matter. The large files towered from the ground almost touching the court’s ceiling.
Inside the mountain of files is evidence, arguments and counter-arguments relating to the case that has meandered through the courts for a decade and a half.
In Zuma’s case are multiple charges of fraud, money laundering, corruption and racketeering linked to his relationships with individuals and entities, among them Shaik and Thales. These include an allegation that Thales tried to secure his support in crushing an investigation into their involvement in corruption in the late 1999s arms deal. Thales’ charges relate directly to their alleged bribery agreement with Zuma.
Both Zuma and Thales contend that the “undue delays” in the prosecution of the case will render it impossible to conduct a fair trial and therefore the case should be permanently struck from the roll.
Zuma’s senior counsel Muzi Sikhakhane, set about trying to cast Zuma as a victim of “mob justice” and political motivated unlawful persecution by a state organ in the form of the National Prosecuting Authority.
“To any objective and truly unbiased mind, the prejudice and injustice visited on Zuma is self-evident. The facts and history of the Zuma prosecution … reveal a pattern of unlawful conduct that should attract the severest reprimand by our courts,” argued Sikhakhane.
His being tried in the court of public opinion over all these years had led to the general public vying for blood without first establishing whether he is innocent or guilty.
He singled out former NPA boss Bulelani Ngcuka as the “chief architect” of this persecution, saying the former national director of public prosecutions had led the nation to believe that Zuma was synonymous with corruption. He said that Ngcuka’s public declaration back in 2003 that he had “a prima facie” case against Zuma and yet choosing not to prosecute was prejudiced towards his client.
Sikhakhane boldly argued that Zuma should have been charged in 2005 along with Shaik and that failure to do so proved that the NPA wanted to use the former financial adviser’s case as a test run before they went for “the big fish”.
“Shaik being charged alone was a means of testing whether the charges put forward by the NPA would stick,” Sikhakhane argued.
This was met with jovial noises of agreement from the public gallery, which was packed with Zuma loyalists.
Thales Advocate Anton Katz also moved to paint his client as a victim, arguing that the company was being treated like Zuma’s conjoined twin.
“Thales has been treated as an add-on, like something floating around. Whatever happens to Zuma is meted out to Thales. If charges are dropped for Zuma the same happens to Thales; when they are reinstated Thales is dragged along. There are no constitutional grounds followed.”
He went on to label Thales’ prosecution as “a knee-jerk, status quo” decision as representations made to former director of public prosecutions Shaun Abrahams had not made any difference but been totally ignored.
Representing the state, Advocate Wim Trengove reminded Zuma’s legal team that their client had been afforded “luxurious litigation” at the expense of the taxpayer, and if it wasn’t for his Stalingrad delaying strategy there would not have been additional delays.
Zuma had not been a victim of the delays, Trengove argued, pointing out that his political career actually flourished while he was still living under the cloud of this pending prosecution.
“His rights were not violated and he did not suffer any greater reputational harm as the defence would have you believe,” argued Trengove.
He accused Zuma’s legal team was clutching at straws with “speculative conspiracy theories.”
“We ... submit that the conspiracy theories are unfounded and are in dispute and should accordingly be disregarded,”said Trengove.
Making closing arguments, Zuma’s legal team brought day three to a dramatic ending as they waited until the eleventh hour to play their trump card before the full bench of judges.
Late drama in court as former president Jacob Zuma's counsel, Muzi Sikhakhane, tries to introduce new evidence in the form of a letter, which apparently proves political interference by Thabo Mbeki and former justice minister Penuell Maduna https://t.co/l8FXewLCuL by @JKwritingz pic.twitter.com/NXyklixPXl— City Press (@City_Press) May 23, 2019
In a cliffhanger ending to a a dramatic week, Sikhakhane sought to introduce new evidence in the form of a letter that supposedly proves political motive.
The letter apparently contains information that former President Thabo Mbeki and his justice minister Penuell Maduna tried to give Zuma a R20 million financial incentive to quit politics.
The state challenged the introduction of new evidence. After heated arguments, the judges did not rule on the admissibility of the letter.
They are expected to come back with a verdict on the stay on prosecution application within the next three months.
Zuma walked out of court, went across the road to address his supporters and said that while everyone was preparing for the inauguration of a new president, he was being forced to concentrate on staying out of jail.