South Africa’s former leader has denied charges of corruption, fraud, racketeering, tax evasion and money laundering relating to a multibillion-dollar arms deal during his tenure as deputy president.
Jacob Zuma yesterday pleaded not guilty to allegations that he accepted annual payments of 500,000 rand (£26,000) from French arms company Thales, “in exchange for protecting the company from an investigation” into arms contracts handed out in 1999 worth 30bn rand (equivalent to $5bn then and almost $2.5bn now), Al Jazeera reports.
Zuma - who went on to become president in 2009 - has repeatedly refuted the allegations, claiming that he is “the victim of a politically motivated witch hunt by his opponents” in the governing African National Congress (ANC) party, the news site adds.
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The veteran politician, who served as deputy president from 1999 until 2005, is facing a total of 18 charges relating to the arms deal, which “involved buying new fighter jets, helicopters, submarines and warships”, says the BBC.
The deal was made when the “newly democratic South Africa decided its military needed to be overhauled”, with the ANC government agreeing contracts with companies from Germany, Italy, Sweden, Britain, South Africa and France, the broadcaster continues.
Yet “even before the allegations of corruption”, the arms spending spree “was contentious in a country where millions lived in poverty”. Questions about whether the weapons build-up was justified quickly emerged, prompting “official investigations into allegations of conflict of interest, bribery and process violations in the purchasing of equipment”.
Following a drawn-out probe, South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority (NPC) finally filed the charges against Zuma in 2008, but “set them aside shortly before he successfully ran for president”, says Al Jazeera. In response to lobbying by opposition parties, the NPC then reinstated the charges in 2018, after the ANC removed Zuma from office in a vote of no confidence.
The corruption case against him has become “a battleground for factions within the ruling ANC party”, the reputation of which has been “badly hurt” by “successive corruption scandals”, says The Guardian.
Zuma is facing a separate inquiry into corruption during his time as president. Yet in a show of support for the former leader, several “senior ANC figures” who are also accused of corruption, including the party’s suspended secretary general Ace Magashule, attended the Pietermaritzburg High Court for the opening earlier this month of his trial, which was then adjourned until this week.
The case has also fuelled public anger, which has been building over the past year amid “a series of allegations of huge sums corruptly earned on government contracts for emergency supplies to combat the Covid-19 pandemic”, the paper reports.
Appearing in court yesterday, Zuma called for prosecutor Billy Downer, a career civil servant, to be thrown off the case, arguing that he has turned the trial into a “personal legacy project of his own”, News24 reports.
Zuma claimed that Downer does not have a “lawful title” to prosecute him and has also “lost his independence and partiality” after allegedly meeting with investigative journalists and writing “very prejudicial” articles about him.
The former president has not produced any clear evidence against Downer, however. The Guardian notes that “Zuma has been accused of using delaying tactics to avoid the trial”.
But the former president “is a politically weakened force these days and his legal options have now run out”, writes BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding.
Although “it’s not clear how long this trial will last, or what the outcome might be”, for such a still powerful figure to face criminal charges over alleged corruption in office marks a “deeply symbolic and defining moment for South Africa”, Harding adds.
Arms company Thales - which was called Thomson-CSF at the time of the 1999 deal - “has said it had no knowledge of any transgressions by any of its employees in relation to the award of the contracts”, Al Jazeera reports. The French firm has also pleaded not guilty to the allegations.
But with Zuma’s successor as president, Cyril Ramaphosa, beginning to claim some “high-profile victories” in a campaign to “stamp out graft” , the outlook is grim for the ex-leader and his political allies, says The Guardian.
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