South African former president Jacob Zuma appeared in court Friday on corruption charges over a multi-billion dollar 1990s arms deal, with the judge adjourning the case after a 15-minute hearing.
Zuma, 75, smiled broadly and gave a thumbs-up as he walked into the Durban High Court building to take his seat in the dock just seven weeks after he was forced to resign from office.
“This matter is adjourned until June 8,” judge Themba Sishi said after being addressed by lawyers from both sides who confirmed that Zuma would appeal against the decision to prosecute him.
Several hundred vocal Zuma supporters rallied outside to protest against his prosecution, which could see him sent to jail if he is found guilty on 16 charges of corruption, money laundering and fraud.
“He might have made his own mistakes, but we say allow the old man to retire in peace. It is a conspiracy, it’s politically motivated,” pro-Zuma business manager Sphelele Ngwane, 29, told AFP.
On Thursday night more than 100 ardent backers rallied in Albert park in a gritty suburb of Durban to protest his innocence and demand a halt to the prosecution.
“There is an unfairness in the judiciary,” warned bishop Timothy Ngcobo, one of the organisers of Thursday’s gathering.
The protesters sang liberation-era songs including “Umshini Wam”, meaning “Bring me my machine gun”, which Zuma often sang at ANC rallies and gatherings.
Scandal-tainted office term
Police mounted a large security operation outside the court, but the occasion remained peaceful early on Friday.
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.
Zuma, who came to power as president shortly after the charges were first dropped in 2009, has always denied any wrongdoing.
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 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.