Former President Jacob Zuma’s corruption case is virtually back in court. Lawyer Wim Trengove SC, Judge Piet Koen, Lawyer Thabani Masuku SC and Lawyer Dali Mpofu SC. (Photo: screenshots)
The Pietermaritzburg Supreme Court heard just under four hours of arguing Monday over whether an adjournment was needed so that former President Jacob Zuma could be physically present in court to testify during his special plea request in the arms trade corruption case, in which he will be joined with French arms manufacturer Thales is on trial.
Jacob Zuma said in his papers, filed over the weekend, that he wanted to be present in court for his trial, as was his constitutional right, and that a virtual platform would infringe this.
Zuma followed the proceedings via an audiovisual link from the Estcourt Correctional Centre.
The presiding officer, Judge Piet Koen, had issued a directive stating that the special plea, set for Monday, should be handled virtually.
The state argued that there was no justification or need to verbally argue the special plea and that a virtual platform was “legitimate, lawful and appropriate” for its adoption, using papers already filed.
Zuma again tried to postpone the proceedings, said National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) lawyer Wim Trengove, and his request for a postponement must be rejected.
“We assume that if you feel that oral evidence is necessary, we will have that trial another day. At this time, we are trying to convince you that oral evidence is not necessary or admissible in support of the special defense, therefore there is no need to postpone as the case can be deduced and established today,” Trengove said.
Many of the lawyers involved in the case are based in Johannesburg. Travel to and from that province is currently temporarily banned under Covid-19 restrictions. Zuma’s physical appearances at court attract crowds of supporters. Large gatherings of any kind are also temporarily banned due to Covid.
The former president is behind bars after being taken into custody in the early hours of July 8 for contempt of a Constitutional Court order that he testifies to the Zondo Commission. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison after being convicted of contempt. His request for annulment of the verdict was heard by the same court last Monday and the verdict was reserved.
Zuma was represented on Monday by senior advisers Dali Mpofu and Thabani Masuku. The latter responded to Trengove’s opposition to a postponement, saying a three-week delay to the trial would make no difference to either side, as the former president had been down this road for “15 years”.
“A virtual hearing in criminal cases is an exception,” says Masuku. “In other words, it limits the scope of the rights to which a suspect is entitled under Article 35 of the Constitution. Therefore, it must be justified in terms of Article 36 of the Constitution. That is very important, because you have to respectfully ask yourself whether a directive that a critical aspect of a plea, which could lead to the acquittal of the accused, is actually heard in his physical absence.”
He asked Koen to limit himself to deciding whether the criteria for postponement had been met.
Monday’s hearing took place against the backdrop of devastating unrest in parts of KwaZulu-Natal. The defense force was eventually mobilized to suppress widespread looting and arson on trucks, shopping malls, public infrastructure, warehouses and factories.
What President Cyril Ramaphosa described as an “uprising” is said to have started with protests calling for Zuma’s release, then escalated into widespread chaos that could cost the provincial economy more than R16 billion.
With his special plea, Zuma wants veteran prosecutor Billy Downer to be removed from the arms deal process on the grounds that he is not impartial and has no right to prosecute. The former president believes that if he is successful, he is entitled to acquittal. The state has denied this, saying that there are others who can prosecute Zuma.
“The accused has taken every point in the book for over 10 years to avoid his day in court. He desperately tries to avoid answering the charges of corruption, fraud and money laundering against him. He objects time and again. The objections raised today were objections raised and rejected by the Supreme Court in the spy tapes case and by the full bank [of the Pietermaritzburg High Court] in [Zuma’s failed bid for a] stay of prosecution,” said Trengove, describing Zuma’s latest filing as “Stalingrad Season 27.”
Audiovisual procedures were legitimate, Trengove said, and were a legal way to best conduct court cases, according to a Justice Department directive regarding alert level 4 regulations.
“The hearing of this debate, on a virtual platform, is a public hearing to which the public has access, and in the presence of the accused. He is present on the platform.
“With respect, it is a competent mechanism… it is an appropriate mechanism, it is one that the court not only has the right to, but, I put it respectfully, is obliged to establish, in the exercise of its discretion powers to ensure that fairness is done not only to the accused, but also to the public interest in the prosecution of any serious crime, but in particular in the prosecution of corruption, fraud and money laundering.”
The former president hadn’t talked about giving oral testimony before, Trengove said, and even now he wouldn’t give his own evidence verbally.
On the contrary, what he demands when speaking of oral evidence is an opportunity to question Mr Downer and a number of other state officials. And he does that time and again. He cannot refute the evidence of Mr Downer and that of the witnesses who gave Mr Downer. It is a symptom of [Zuma’s] failure of his admission to make a case, that he now resorts to a request for reference to oral evidence.”
Koen reserved his ruling until 10 a.m. Tuesday morning and said it “probably wouldn’t come up with reasons yet”.
Zuma is accused of receiving 791 payments, totaling R4.1 million, between 1995 and 2004 from his former financial adviser Schabir Shaik and Shaik’s companies to help Thales, the number two accused, secure lucrative defense contracts from government as part of the country. 1999 billion rand arms deal.
Downer was part of the original team that successfully secured Shaik’s conviction in 2005.
Zuma faces one racketeering charge, two corruption charges, one money laundering and 12 fraud charges.
Thales faces one count of racketeering, two of corruption and one of money laundering. DM