S.Africa’s Zuma pleads not guilty in graft trial
South Africa’s former president, Jacob Zuma, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday in a much-postponed corruption case dating back more than two decades.
outh Africa’s former president, Jacob Zuma, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday in a much-postponed corruption case dating back more than two decades.
The 79-year-old faces 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering relating to a 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and military gear from five European arms firms for 30 billion rand, then the equivalent of nearly $5 billion.
Zuma — who at the time was president Thabo Mbeki’s deputy — is accused of accepting bribes totalling four million rand from one of the firms, French defence giant Thales.
Zuma was impassive as he faced the court in the eastern city of Pietermaritzburg, where numerous supporters and relatives were gathered.
Impeccably dressed in a dark blue suit and a red tie, wearing an anti-coronavirus mask, he was repeatedly asked by the judge, Piet Koen, to confirm in person the response of his attorney, given “the magnitude of what we’re dealing with.”
“I plead not guilty,” Zuma said without hesitating.
Thales also entered a not-guilty plea to charges of corruption and money laundering.
The company’s lawyers told the court that Thales had never paid any bribes to Zuma to allegedly prevent investigation into the arms sale.
For many South Africans, the long-awaited case will deliver the verdict of history on Zuma’s turbulent presidency.
Under his nine-year tenure, say critics, corruption and cronyism flourished, and billions of dollars in state assets and business were siphoned off.
The ex-leader’s lawyers asked to have prosecution attorney Billy Downer recused, accusing him of bias.
“His right to a fair trial is what is at stake,” Zuma’s defence advocate, Dali Mpofu, argued.
– ‘Not delaying’ –
Outside the courthouse, hundreds of Zuma backers gathered, some dressed in camouflage, singing and dancing in a show of support for their embattled leader.
“I trust by the end of this trial there will be justice and it will be shown that I did not steal anything,” Zuma told the jubilant crowd, speaking in his native language, Zulu.
But “this case can’t continue with this man as the prosecutor, we want him removed,” Zuma said, echoing his defence team’s argument, before quickly adding that the recusal request was not another delay tactic.
“We are not delaying, we want this matter aired out and heard in court,” Zuma said.
A veteran showman, Zuma burst into a gospel anthem and then followed with his trademark anti-apartheid song “Awuleth’ Umshini Wami” (“Bring Me My Machine Gun”), causing his gleeful followers to join in unison.
The next hearing has been set for July 19.
Prosecutors are expected to call around 200 witnesses during the course of the trial.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) forced Zuma to resign in 2018 after a mounting series of scandals.
His successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, has vowed to stamp out graft, but is meeting resistance from pro-Zuma figures who command grassroots support in the party.