South Africa’s embattled former President Jacob Zuma is expected in court on corruption charges, in what would be his first graft trial despite multiple accusations.
Zuma stands accused of taking kickbacks before he became president from a 51-billion-rand ($3.4bn) purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and military equipment manufactured by five European firms, including French defence company Thales.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) party forced him to resign as president last year after a nine-year reign marred by corruption allegations and diminishing popularity.
After several attempts to dodge the trial, he will appear before a High Court in the south-eastern city of Pietermaritzburg on Tuesday for the opening of the case in which he allegedly profited four million rand ($270,000).
However his appearance could be brief. A court official has predicted that at the start of the process he would likely appeal against last week’s ruling that he should stand trial.
That would potentially drag out a case that is already more than 20 years old.
Zuma is expected to appear alongside representatives of Thales, which is accused of paying the bribes. Both Zuma and Thales deny the charges.
There is also doubt over whether the court will be able to start proceedings straight away.
“I just don’t see how the trial is going to start tomorrow. It takes a whole year to prepare for a trial of this magnitude,” Johannesburg-based lawyer Tyrone Maseko told AFP.
“They are not ready for a trial,” said Maseko, adding that Zuma faces many charges and that a final indictment needs to be defined.
Zuma faces 16 charges of fraud, corruption and racketeering related to the 1990s arms deal struck when he was deputy president to the country’s second black president Thabo Mbeki.
His former financial adviser Schabir Shaik, who allegedly facilitated Thales’ payments, was in 2005 found guilty of fraud and corruption and was sentenced to 15 years behind bars.
But, shortly after Zuma became president in 2009, Shaik was released on medical parole.
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 king of corrupt people’
Zuma has also been accused of overseeing the mass looting of state assets during his nine-year presidency.
High on the list of alleged benefactors is the wealthy Indian-born Gupta business family, who were accused of unfairly obtaining lucrative government contracts and even influencing Zuma’s ministerial appointments.
The country’s former anti-corruption watchdog head Thuli Madonsela accused Zuma of being an integral player who opened the doors for individuals and private companies to loot state resources.
After duelling with Madonsela in the courts, Zuma was ordered to appoint a commission of inquiry into the corruption scandal – commonly known as “state capture”. It has been hearing testimonies since August last year.
Zuma appeared at the inquiry in July, putting on a defiant performance and denying all wrongdoing.
“I have been vilified, alleged to be the king of corrupt people,” he said, adding that he had been the victim of “character assassination over 20 years”.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who took over from Zuma, has vowed to tackle deep-seated corruption but faces opposition from senior powerful ANC members, many of whom remain Zuma allies.