Durban (South Africa) (AFP) – Former South African president Jacob Zuma came out fighting on Friday after appearing in court to face corruption charges over a suspect multi-billion dollar 1990s arms deal.
Zuma was composed in the dock wearing a dark suit, white shirt and red tie as about 1,000 cheering supporters rallied outside to protest against the prosecution that has deepened political divisions.
The ex-president, who was forced to resign just seven weeks ago, has been charged with 16 counts of graft stemming from an arms contract dating back to before he became president.
After just 15 minutes of legal discussions in the packed courtroom A of the Durban High Court, the case was adjourned until June 8 by judge Themba Sishi.
Zuma, surrounded by a large entourage, left the courtroom to address his supporters, 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 told the crowd from a concert-style stage to wild cheers.
In the case, which is officially known as “the State v Zuma”, he is referred to as “accused number one”.
His lawyers confirmed to the court on Friday that he would appeal against the decision to prosecute him.
The appeal is likely to prolong his epic legal battle to head off the charges and avoid a trial could send him to jail.
– Loyal supporters –
“What we are saying, what the former president is saying, is true — we don’t think we are going to get a fair trial,” said a supporter, Bishop Timothy Ngcobo who appeared on stage alongside Zuma.
“Zuma came with ideas that are going to boost the black people.”
In the courtroom, supporters chanted Zuma’s 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.
Police equiped with shields, water cannon and armoured vehicles mounted a major security operation outside the court, but the hearing and speeches were peaceful.
A young traditional dancer in full warrior costume and clutching a shield took to the stage following Zuma to entertain the crowd after he addressed them in his native Zulu language.
He sang and danced along enthusiastically to a rendition of “Umshini Wam”, a struggle-era song that means “Bring me my machine gun”.
– Accused of taking bribes –
Zuma is accused of taking bribes from French arms maker Thales over a contract worth several billion dollars during his time as a provincial economy minister and later as deputy ANC president.
Thales, which supplied naval vessels as part of the deal, also faces charges of corruption and a company representative from France appeared in court alongside Zuma.
Thales’ lawyer, Robert Driman, declined to comment to AFP on the case.
Zuma is accused of illicitly pocketing 4,072,499.85 rand — 280,000 euros, $340,000 at today’s 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 the inquiry proved there was “not a single iota” of evidence for wrongdoing.
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.
Thuman Mkhize, 43 and unemployed, from Durban said Zuma “was the perfect leader” because he “opened free education and land”.
“The prosecution is because they don’t want to give our land back. He’s innocent,” Mkhize said.
The ANC forced Zuma from office in February largely due to his mounting legal challenges and multiple corruption scandals, and the party has distanced itself from its former leader.
Zuma’s successor as president 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.