Durban (South Africa) (AFP) – Calm but defiant, South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma appeared in court on Friday to face graft charges from a major arms deal in the 1990s.
Zuma — forced to resign just seven weeks ago — sat in the dock as about a thousand cheering supporters rallied outside, reflecting a case that has raised passions and dug political divisions.
He is to face 16 charges over the multi-billion-dollar contract, which dates to before he became president.
After 15 minutes of preliminary legal discussions at the Durban High Court, the case was adjourned until June 8.
Zuma, surrounded by a large entourage, left the court to address his loyalists, telling them that the charges were “politically motivated”.
“I am innocent until proven guilty, but there are people who want to treat me like I am guilty,” Zuma said to wild cheers.
In the case, which is officially known as “the State v Zuma”, the former president is referred to “accused number one”.
His lawyers confirmed to the court Friday that he would appeal against the decision to prosecute him — the latest move of a long legal battle to head off the charges and avoid a trial could send him to jail.
In the courtroom, supporters chanted his name, while outside, the crowds sang “Tell us what he has done wrong” and “Hands off Zuma”.
“He might have made his own mistakes, but we say allow the old man to retire in peace. It is a conspiracy,” pro-Zuma business manager Sphelele Ngwane, 29, told AFP.
On Thursday night more than a hundred ardent backers had rallied in Albert park in a gritty suburb of Durban to protest his innocence and demand a halt to the prosecution.
– Scandal-tainted office term –
Police mounted a large security operation outside the court, but the occasion remained peaceful.
Zuma is accused of taking bribes from French arms maker Thales over a contract worth several billion dollars (euros) during his time as a provincial economy minister and then deputy ANC president.
Thales, which supplied naval vessels as part of the deal, also faces charges with corruption and a company representative appeared in court alongside Zuma.
Zuma is accused of illicitly pocketing a total of 4,072,499.85 rand — 280,000 euros at today’s exchange rates — from 783 payments handled by Schabir Shaik, a businessman who acted as his financial adviser.
Shaik was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2005 based on the same accusations, but a much-criticised 2016 inquiry absolved Zuma of any blame.
Zuma has claimed that the inquiry proved that “not a single iota of evidence (shows) that any of the money received by any of the consultants was paid to any officials”.
Last month, prosecutions chief Shaun Abrahams — dubbed “Shaun the Sheep” for his loyalty to Zuma during his presidency — ordered that Zuma be charged with fraud, corruption and money laundering.
The ANC forced Zuma from office in February largely due to his mounting legal challenges and multiple corruption scandals, and it has distanced itself from its former leader.
Zuma’s successor Cyril Ramaphosa has vowed to crack down on government corruption, which he has admitted is a serious problem.
Campaign groups are hoping that the case could set a benchmark for allegedly corrupt leaders to face prosecutions, which are a rarity on the African continent.