Jacob Zuma‘s lawyers have alleged the former South African president is being treated unfairly by prosecutors amid a bid by the erstwhile leader to have corruption charges levelled against him dropped.
Zuma, who resigned last year amid intense public pressure after nine scandal-plagued years in power, is accused of committing 16 counts of fraud, racketeering and money laundering relating to a multibillion-dollar arms deal involving military hardware supplied by French defence company Thales to South Africa‘s armed forces in the late 1990s.
On Monday, the 77-year-old appeared in court for the fifth time since the charges against him were reinstated in March 2018. He has previously denied any wrongdoing, claiming he was the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt, and has applied for a permanent stay of prosecution over the case.
Advocate Muzi Sikhakhane, Zuma’s lawyer, described the former president’s treatment by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) as “mob justice” and said he had been charged because of his unpopularity among many South Africans.
“Suppose we know that he may well have done what we suspect he did. Does he get stripped of human dignity, is there a reason to deal with him in a particular way because he is Mr Zuma?” Sikhakhane said in his opening comments on the first day of the hearing.
The charges against Zuma were originally filed more than a decade ago but the NPA set them aside shortly before he successfully ran for president in 2009.
Sikhakhane argued that given the time span, Zuma’s constitutional right to a prompt trial had been “violated to the point where we could say ‘a fair trial can never happen’.”
In a statement on Sunday, Thales expressed a similar view, saying it believed “it cannot obtain a fair trial” because of the very long delay of the case, together with a range of factors beyond its control.
Thales reiterated that it has no knowledge of any transgressions having been committed by any of its employees in relation to the awarding of the contract in the 1999 arms deal.
The hearing is set to last until Friday but the court will not sit on Wednesday.
A separate judicial inquiry into alleged state corruption during Zuma’s time as president is under way, meanwhile, in Johannesburg.
His successor as president and head of the African National Congress (ANC) party, Cyril Ramaphosa, has promised to root out corruption as part of a sweeping reform agenda aimed at restoring faith in South Africa’s government and the country’s dominant political movement.
The ANC won re-election earlier this month, scooping 57.5 percent of the vote to guarantee a sixth straight term in power.
But the result was the worst-ever electoral performance by the party, which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid 25 years ago, reflecting widespread frustration over rampant corruption and a stagnant jobs market.
South Africa’s economy, the second-largest on the continent, grew just 0.8 percent in 2018. Overall unemployment, meanwhile, hovers at around 27 percent, with more than 50 percent of young people out of work.
Ramaphosa has, so far, faced resistance to his reform agenda, however, especially from Zuma allies who still occupy several high-ranking positions in the party and government.