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At the High Court in Pietermaritzburg today, former president Jacob Zuma was there early, supported by his son Duduzane, suspended ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, a small crowd of fans, and ANC politician Tony Yengeni, among others.

Zuma, along with French arms manufacturer Thales – known at the time as Thomson-CSF – is on trial for one count of racketeering, one count of money laundering, two counts of corruption, and 12 counts of fraud relating to South Africa’s arms deal of 1999. He is accused of lobbying for the Thomson group in exchange for payments from them.

The trial is set to run from 17 May to 20 June 2021, and such days afterwards as are required.

Judge Piet Koen adjourned today’s proceedings until 26 May, to accommodate a forthcoming application regarding state advocate Billy Downer’s presence in the case. The papers will be filed on Wednesday because the state was advised only today of the application and has to have a formal notice period, while time has to be allocated to deal with the special plea. Koen also excused Patricia De Lille, current public works minister, who is the state’s first witness. De Lille would be recalled when the court was ready for her.

Zuma’s formal plea of ‘not guilty’ will also be entered on 26 May.

“The time has arrived finally,” said De Lille before proceedings began, “for the former president to state his side in an open court of law, and we must respect his right to do so.”

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) was a touch more upbeat. “This is a clear demonstration that it is all systems go for the NPA as the state is ready to proceed with the trial,” said spokesperson Sipho Ngwema.

“The NPA has done all the necessary preparations and all 217 of our witnesses are ready to testify. We have no doubt this is the moment the accused in this matter have always been looking forward to and are certain the accused will take this with both hands so they can account for what happened before a fair and transparent process.”

A long-awaited start

There were fears that another delay could be imposed because until days ago Zuma had no legal team. Advocate Mannie Witz said on 12 May that the case could be postponed if Zuma failed to secure legal representation by then. However, the former president has appointed Advocate Thabani Masuku SC as his counsel for the trial.

Masuku is registered with the Cape Bar and is a member of the Judicial Services Commission panel. He has represented Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane, the public protector, former SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng, and Western Cape judge president John Hlophe, who were all unsuccessful in their respective defences.

Zuma’s legal team was previously represented by Eric Mabuza. After confirming that Masuku was ready to proceed, Koen granted Mabuza leave to withdraw from the trial.