The corruption trial of South Africa’s embattled former president Jacob Zuma has been delayed again after his lawyer announced Tuesday he would appeal.
The last-minute move pushes back a long-awaited trial over bribery allegations dating back to a 1990s arms deal. Zuma dismissed the charges as a conspiracy.
If it goes ahead, the trial would be the first time Zuma faces a court on graft charges, despite a string of accusations over his long political career.
The High Court in the southeastern city of Pietermaritzburg last week rejected his request to have 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering dismissed, clearing the way for the trial to start on Tuesday.
But Zuma’s lawyer Thabani Masuku told the court at the start of the trial that the ex-president would appeal, dragging on a case that has seen numerous legal twists over 15 years.
After the hearing, Zuma told a small group of supporters gathered outside court that “there have been many conspirators against me”.
“There is no justice that will be served by continuing with this case,” he told the crowd in Zulu.
Zuma was forced to resign as president last year by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party after a nine-year reign marred by corruption allegations and dwindling popularity.
He is accused of taking bribes worth four million rand ($270,000, 240,000 euros) when he was deputy president from a 51-billion-rand ($3.4-billion) 1999 arms purchase by five European firms, including French defence company Thales.
Both Zuma and Thales, which is accused of paying the bribes and was also to stand trial, deny the charges.
‘Another cunning move’
The appeal, which must be filed by November 1, will be heard on November 22. If denied, proceedings are scheduled to resume on the provisional date of February 4.
State lawyer Billy Downer told the court that the prosecution believed the appeal would fail and requested the trial start as soon as possible.
Legal analysts have said a delay would have been likely even without the appeal, given the size of the case.
For its part, Zuma’s defence team maintained that the ex-president had been ready for trial for 14 years.
Legal expert Pierre de Vos of the University of Cape Town said that “if all the courts refuse to hear the appeal, there will be a short delay.”
“If they hear the appeal there will be another year or two before they can begin a trial,” he told AFP, adding that he could face 15 years in jail if found guilty.
Analysts have warned that if Zuma goes on trial, he will drag down with him many leaders of Nelson Mandela’s ANC, which has governed the country since the end of apartheid in 1994.
The opposition Democratic Alliance party in a statement slammed “yet another cunning move by Zuma to avoid jail” and called for the government to ensure the ex-president pay his legal fees.
After a court ruled last year that he should pay his own way, Zuma claimed he was so broke that he had to sell his socks.
– ‘Teflon president’ –
Critics have dubbed Zuma the “Teflon president” for his reputed ability to evade judicial reckoning.
He has also been accused of organising the systematic plunder of government coffers in a scandal known as “state capture”.
He appeared at an inquiry into the scandal in July, putting on a defiant performance and denying all wrongdoing.
Zuma’s successor President Cyril Ramaphosa told a conference hosted by the Financial Times in London this week that corruption during Zuma’s administration is estimated to have cost the country more than 500 billion rand ($34 billion).
Ramaphosa has vowed to tackle deep-seated corruption but faces opposition from powerful senior ANC members, many of whom remain Zuma allies.
“Zuma was in charge for nearly two terms but did very little for us ordinary people,” Sakhile Dube, a 30-year-old clothes seller, told AFP outside the Pietermaritzburg court.
“We are still waiting to see if Ramaphosa can assist us and remedy the situation,” he added.