Former president Jacob Zuma has been dodging corruption charges for 16 years. Since 2005, when those charges of racketeering, money laundering, corruption and fraud relating to the 1999 arms deal were first brought against him, he has been more slippery than a pig in mud.
Mud dries up eventually, though, and so it is with Zuma’s tricks. The dodger and his co-accused, French arms company Thales – known at that time as Thomson-CSF, and accused of bribing Zuma – will finally go on trial for those 16 charges on Monday 17 May, after the Pietermaritzburg High Court set down the date on 23 February this year.
But will he? Will Zuma wriggle out of it even at this late stage? He currently has no legal team, and a legal expert has speculated that because of this, we may see another delay in the long-awaited court date. Advocate Mannie Witz said on Wednesday 12 May that the case could be postponed on Monday if Zuma failed to secure legal representation by then.
So even though the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) is ready for the trial, there is no guarantee, as yet, that Zuma will face the justice he has long claimed to seek.
“Indeed justice delayed is justice denied and this has been [former president] Zuma’s lived reality and experience of the criminal justice system,” trumpeted the Jacob Zuma Foundation in February 2021.
On again, off again
In January 2021, what was then thought to be the final obstacle was removed when the Pietermaritzburg High Court dismissed, with costs, the bid by Thales to challenge the charges against it. Thales decided to not appeal this ruling, paving the way for the trial to finally start.
The January dismissal was the latest in a string of legal defeats by the two parties as they tried to have their respective slates wiped clean.
In May 2019 Thales and Zuma applied for a permanent stay of prosecution, but a full bench of the Pietermaritzburg High Court dismissed the application in October that year, ruling that Zuma and Thales would have to stand trial for the corruption-linked charges,
Thales then approached the Constitutional Court, which turned down the application for leave to appeal. The company went back to the Pietermaritzburg High Court in October 2020, arguing that the NPA did not have the evidence to charge the company with racketeering.
When this challenge was overruled in January, many around the country rejoiced, having grown weary over the years of watching the former president weave his way through everything thrown at him, like a certain rugby wing heading for the try-line in a world cup final.
Back in 2016 Zuma might have thought the referee had blown the whistle in his favour once and for all when the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of Fraud, Corruption and Wrongdoing in the Strategic Defence Procurement Package (the Seriti commission) (un)surprisingly found no trace of wrongdoing in the so-called arms deal. The commission, which sat for four years, declared the entire procurement process to have been completely above board – despite heaps of evidence to the contrary.
Zuma was therefore also cleared and with the trial looming, had been handed a powerful weapon with which to fight the charges.
But Corruption Watch and the Right2Know Campaign were having none of it. The two organisations challenged the report, arguing that it was a cover-up and that the commission had misled the public. In August 2019 the North Gauteng High Court set aside the commission’s report, validating the organisations’ concerns that the commission failed to conduct a meaningful, credible and open-minded investigation.
Now Judge Willie Seriti and Judge Hendrick Musi, who presided over the commission, are to face the likelihood of an inquiry into their conduct in the matter. The Judicial Conduct Committee will meet on 12 June to deliberate a complaint in this regard from NPOs Shadow World Investigations and Open Secrets. Seriti and Musi could face impeachment, if found guilty of gross misconduct.