By Prince Kurupati
In one of the longest-running legal saga of recent South Africa, Jacob Zuma, the former president of the country is set to have his day in court in 2020. Jacob Zuma is facing 12 counts of fraud, four counts of corruption, one count of racketeering and one count of money laundering. The charges relate back to the arms deal of the late 1990s.
In the late 1990s, it’s alleged that Jacob Zuma used his government position to lobby on behalf of Thomson CSF, a defence contractor bidding on behalf of Thales a European arms manufacturer that wanted to win the tender to supply arms to the South African national army. It’s alleged that during the arms deal negotiations, Zuma sought to enrich himself by engaging in dodgy deals behind the scenes with the defence contractors Thomson CSF. Thomson CSF is alleged to have won the tender to supply arms owing to corruption from Jacob Zuma who used his power and influence as a cabinet minister to lobby in favour of Thomson CSF. For his part, Zuma pocketed four million rands from Schabir Shaik, his financial adviser on behalf of Thomson CSF.
Soon after Thomson CSF won the tender, reports started to emerge stating that the company had won due to corrupt practices. Jacob Zuma together with Schabir Shaik were fingered as the culprits. It didn’t take long before investigations into the whole arms deal began and it is from these investigations that Zuma was charged with 12 counts of fraud, four counts of corruption, one count of racketeering and one count of money laundering alongside Shaik.
The charges levelled against Zuma and Shaik paved way for legal proceedings which in 2005 led to the imprisonment of Shaik for 15 years. Zuma, however, was lucky as his trial dragged on for long before the prosecuting body, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) set aside all charges against him allowing him to run for president in 2009. The NPA’s decision to set aside all charges against Jacob Zuma was influenced by the revelations about the spy tapes in which the head of the intelligence and the prosecution body were recorded talking about how they would time Zuma’s indictment to influence the outcome of the Polokwane elective conference that was to take place that same year.
During his presidency, Zuma’s opponents mainly the main opposition the Democratic Alliance (DA) began a lengthy battle with the prosecuting authority with the sole intention of having the charges levelled against him reinstated. In 2016, they finally succeeded in their endeavours.
Zuma’s reply at the time was to counter with his legal challenge which basically sought to exclude him from any wrongdoing. Zuma’s challenge rather blamed the National Prosecuting Authority for unilaterally taking the decision to set aside the charges. For some time, it seemed that Zuma’s challenge was enough to have the case ‘closed’ for good. However, the Zondo Commission of Inquiry on State Capture in which Zuma was one of the interviewees reopened the case.
During questioning by Raymond Zondo, a senior judge mandated to investigate separate allegations of state capture in the country during Zuma’s presidency, stated that the Gupta family comprising three brothers engaged in several corrupt schemes in South Africa owing to their close relationship with the president Jacob Zuma, allegedly stealing hundreds of millions of dollars through illegal deals with the South African government, obfuscated by a shadowy network of shell companies and associates linked to the family. In response, Zuma acknowledged that the Gupta brothers are his friends but denied any influence-peddling in their relationship.
In the end, the Zondo Commission of Inquiry on State Capture concluded that Zuma stopped short of asserting criminal behaviour. Rather, it called for an investigation into whether Zuma, some of his cabinet members and some state companies had acted improperly. While Zuma was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, what the Commission of Inquiry did was to give the impetus to Zuma’s opponents to revisit the arms deal corruption scandal.
Faced with a new wave of pressure to stand trial for the arms deal corruption saga, the first step that Zuma did was to file a permanent stay of prosecution. In doing so, he argued that it was no longer making sense for him to stay trial considering the undue delay in prosecuting him. As stated by investigative journalist Karyn Maughan, Zuma “is effectively putting the NPA on trial and he is arguing that there’s been undue delay in prosecuting him and that the delay can’t be solely blamed on him, but is actually the NPA’s fault.”
Zuma’s argument when filing the permanent stay of execution also stated that his inclusion in the arms deal corruption saga as an architect was all part and parcel of a grand political scheme. As supporting evidence, Zuma made reference to the spy tapes. The spy tapes are recordings of phone conversations between former Scorpion’s head Leonard McCarthy and former prosecutions head Bulelani Ngcuka about when to time the indictment of Zuma – in order to influence the outcome of the ANC’s Polokwane elective conference in 2007.
Zuma’s permanent stay of prosecution was however refused by the court.
The court decision did not deter Zuma however as he quickly appealed the court’s decision refusing him permanent stay of prosecution. The court has since replied with Prosecutor Billy Downer saying that the parties have agreed to a hearing of Zuma’s application for leave to appeal…and that, by February (2020), they would have an idea of which way the case was going.
According to Downer, the February date is a ‘holding date’ but the state is hoping that the actual trial will start in April. Downer further went on to state that the state was ready to go on trial.
Concurring with the remarks relayed by Downer, Zuma’s counsel, Thabani Masuku SC, said the former president was also ready to go on trial and had been for the past 14 years.
The next part in the ongoing Jacob Zuma corruption case will not see him stand before the court to answer for his alleged role in the arms deal. Rather, it will simply see Zuma argue with the NPA to have his case closed once and for all for undue delay in prosecuting him. Essentially, this, therefore, means that those who want to see Zuma have his day in court answering to the alleged corruption charges will have to wait a little longer (or for eternity if Zuma wins the case against the NPA).
While the lengthy nature of the Zuma case may have many people disappointed, especially those who are convinced that Zuma is guilty and deserves to serve time for his alleged role in the arms deal, the truth of the matter as stated by Zuma himself is that the blame solely lies with the NPA. It is the NPA which is responsible for prosecuting wrongdoers and if it does not do its job properly, then the accused should not take the blame rather, it is the NPA that should. Setting aside all charges in 2009 was a unilateral decision taken by the NPA, for that, the NPA should accept the blame for causing the case to drag on and on for long. Zuma in arguing that there has been undue delay in prosecuting him is therefore justified.
Moreover, the NPA’s case includes excerpts from Schabir Shaik. As Zuma rightfully argues, it’s unfair for the NPA to use Shaik’s testimony as he should have been given the right to go on trial with him, cross-examine him and dispute what he was saying if there were any lies detected. That was not the case as the NPA did not allow for a joint trial hence the blame is solely to be apportioned to the prosecuting body. It’s probable that Shaik may have added more to his story just to save his skin (and have his sentence reduced) and thus, Zuma should not be punished for that.