Zuma trial postponed yet again amid application for state prosecutor's recusal

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Former president Jacob Zuma during a court appearance in Pietermaritzburg in 2019. Photo: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images
Former president Jacob Zuma during a court appearance in Pietermaritzburg in 2019. Photo: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images

There was yet another postponement to the highly anticipated start of the trial of former president Jacob Zuma and his co-accused, French arms company Thales, who face charges of corruption, racketeering and money laundering in relation with the 1999 arms deal.

The trial, due to a lack of finality in terms of the pretrial proceedings, was adjourned to May 26, a date on which Zuma and his co-accused are expected to enter their formal plea.

Zuma’s legal team, led by advocate Thabani Masuku, indicated that it would be bringing an application for state prosecutor Billy Downer to recuse himself.

Masuku is expected to file papers formally requesting that Downer step aside from prosecuting the matter on Wednesday, giving the latter and his team exactly a week to formulate their defence against why he ought not to recuse himself.

During Monday’s proceedings, Downer told Judge Piet Koen that some time ago he was informed that such an application would be made at the start of the trial. He said that, procedurally, the defence was supposed to give the state reasonable notice pretrial to formulate counter-arguments

“We don’t yet have the plea [questioning Downer’s suitability to lead the state’s prosecution]. I am informed by my learned friend that it is supported by substantial papers, including statements sworn under oath,” said Downer.

Those who carried out the investigations are now leading the prosecution.
Jacob Zuma about the state prosecutor recusal

The recusal will be brought in accordance with section 106 of the Criminal Procedure Amendment Act, which allows the accused to formally plead to the charges against them - be it guilty or not guilty. In accordance with the act, an accused who pleads not guilty is allowed to enter a further plea, which in this case is understood as being that the defence will plead that there are serious legal impediments which necessitate the exclusion of Downer from spearheading the state’s prosecution.

Zuma sheds light on recusal application

While addressing his supporters outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Monday, Zuma explained his objection to Downer presiding over the legal matter.

“My legal representatives informed the courts that there were many things done by those prosecuting and investigating this matter. They told the courts that those who carried out the investigations are now leading the prosecution and they investigate in a manner that is not in accordance with the law.

"I will not say much now ... The rest we will say when we come to court, but there were people who were gossiping with the prosecutors saying he must be investigated. There are others who also insulted my person.”

Both parties ready to proceed to trial

Downer said that, based on this application, it appeared inevitable that the matter must be postponed for the state to be furnished with the plea, a proposition that was supported by Masuku, leading to Koen adjourning the trial.

The issue of Zuma chopping and changing his legal representatives was also formally addressed, with Koen seeking clarity on which attorneys were now instructing Zuma’s legal team and whether the change would affect the start of the trial.

READ: Zuma’s lawyers quit – just four weeks before his arms deal corruption trial starts

Masuku indicated that the defence team was no longer instructed by Mabuza Attorneys, which in April filed a notice of withdrawal, taking with it the services of advocates Muzi Sikhakhane and Mpilo Sikhakhane. Zuma’s new instructing attorney is Bethuel Thusini of Thusini Attorneys.

The change in legal teams will have no material bearing on the proceedings going ahead.

Thales is represented by Barry Roux.

Since first stepping into court after the charges were reinstated, Downer has maintained that the state is trial-ready, an assertion he repeated on Monday.

Charges against Zuma and Thales

The former president is facing one count of racketeering, two counts of corruption, one count of money laundering and 12 counts of fraud, while Thales is facing one count of racketeering, two counts of corruption and one count of money laundering.

Zuma is alleged to have received 791 payments totalling R4.1million between October 1995 and mid-2005 from his former financial adviser Schabir Shaik.

READ: Mondli Makhanya: End of Zuma’s Stalingrad

The indictment states that the money, which has previously been described as “loans” by Zuma’s defence, went towards him paying off his debts as well as towards rent, vehicle repayments, education and allowances for his children.

First witness

The National Prosecuting Authority had brought in its first witness, Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille, who brought the arms deal allegations into public notice as far back as September 1999 when she placed a notice before Parliament. De Lille was excused from proceedings on Monday and is expected back in court next week.

Masuku also took the opportunity to dispute allegations that Zuma has been employing delay tactics and maintained that the former president wanted to have his day in court to prove his innocence.

In February, Downer termed it a “milestone” that Monday’s date was eventually decided on. Zuma’s legal team told the court at the same sitting that it had no qualms with the date. The trial was, at that stage, expected to run until at least the end of June.

Magashule and co show their support

As expected, suspended ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule; ANC national executive committee members Bongani Bongo and Tony Yengeni; uMkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association spokesperson Carl Niehaus; and former North West premier Supra Mahumapelo were among the crowd of supporters on Monday.

READ: Ace: I do not fear expulsion

Among them were also ANC KwaZulu-Natal chairperson Sihle Zikalala and KwaZulu-Natal ANC secretary Mdumiseni Ntuli, who were sent in by the provincial executive committee in a last-ditch effort to try and salvage favour among Zuma loyalists leading up to the looming local government elections.

Magashule vowed to support Zuma when he again appears before the court next week, saying he would bring not only ANC Free State branches but the entire Free State on his return.


Juniour Khumalo 

Political Journalist

+27 11 713 9001
69 Kingsway Rd, Auckland Park
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