The Pietermaritzburg High Court has formally certified former president Jacob Zuma’s corruption case as trial-ready and set it to commence on May 17.
The matter is expected to last until June 20, but international Covid-19 travel restrictions could play a major factor in whether the matter will go ahead as planned, given that some representatives – former employees of co-accused French arms company Thales – and witnesses live overseas.
As a result, high court Judge Nkosinathi Chili said adjustments to the trial dates would be made as and when necessary to accommodate any unforeseen Covid-19 interruptions.
State prosecutor Billy Downer said all parties were ready to go to trial, given that the state had received an assurance that Thales would not be appealing the high court’s dismissal of the company’s application to set aside a racketeering charge.
In its ruling last month, the court found there was no basis for Thales’ application and dismissed it with costs.
“There were some matters outstanding which were preventing the matter from going to trial. Those outstanding matters were the results of the Thales review application to set aside the Prevention of Organised Crime Act racketeering certificate as is indicated in the pretrial minutes. This court handed down judgment on January 22 so that issue has been resolved and my learned friends representing Thales have indicated that they will not be taking the matter further. As far as pretrial goes, that matter is now at an end and no longer preventing the matter from going to trial,” said Downer.
He added that yet another hindrance which had prevented the matter from going to trail was the request for “further and better particulars” by Thales’ legal representatives, which was solved when the state handed over the requested documents on February 16.
While acknowledging that the matter was ready in terms of what could be done by the defence and the state, Downer indicated that the Covid-19 pandemic, which that had prevented the matter from going ahead last year, could again derail the agreed on commencement date.
“As far as the other matter is concerned which was holding up the trial, the issue of Covid-19 and [its] consequences, which include travel restrictions to and from South African, affects the representatives of the accused and some witnesses who are overseas, and remains a consideration. But none of us think it’s a reason to hold up proceedings because if we were to wait we would never go to trial,” he said.
According to the state, there are more than 200 witnesses – 234 in total, but only 217 availed themselves.
Downer also indicated that all parties, although absent from proceedings on Tuesday morning, had undertaken to present themselves on May 17 without the need for warrants of arrests being issued.
National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) spokesperson Sipho Ngwema confirmed that the state and Thales had suggested that the trial date be set for May 17, but said the judge would have the final say.
“Having read the papers filed on record and considered the submissions for the state and accused, the court orders as follows: The matter is certified as trial-ready… The matter is postponed … to May 17 2021 until June 20 2021,” said Chili.
The case against Zuma and Thales concerns the country’s 1999 multibillion-rand arms deal. The former statesman and Thales face charges of corruption, racketeering and money laundering linked to the deal.
Meanwhile, the NPA has dismissed claims by the Jacob Zuma Foundation on Monday that it is not ready to proceed with the trial.
Ngwema said: “The state is ready for the matter to go to trial, as we have indicated with the preferred date in May. However, it depends on what the judge says.”
Ngwema clarified that Tuesday was never meant to be a trial date, only the date by which parties were expected to resolve outstanding pretrial management issues and then agree on a trial date.