Is Zuma Accused No 1 or merely Suspect No 1?

A case for the prosecution? President Jacob Zuma. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

A case for the prosecution? President Jacob Zuma. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)


President Jacob Zuma stands accused – by his political opponents, among others – of a wide range of things, including breaching the Constitution and criminally exploiting the public purse. But is he “the accused”?

“I think it is entirely fair to call him an accused,” said one senior advocate this week.

“You can’t be accused until you are properly indicted and have appeared,” said one of his peers.

“I think there are two views on that matter,” said a third.

When the high court in Pretoria last week overturned a 2009 decision to withdraw corruption charges against Zuma, the effect was to reinstate the decision to charge him. But that does not actually reinstate the charges themselves.

Or does it?

“When you set aside the decision to award a contract, you are setting aside the contract – that is settled in our law,” said one senior advocate who would not be named because of prior involvement in the matter.

“In strict law, the decision to withdraw was set aside in unqualified terms. That winds the clock back to a time when Zuma was being prosecuted and the [National Prosecuting Authority] was considering his representations.”

With its long history, Zuma’s case is peculiar in many respects.

Under normal circumstances, media organisations would have to show extraordinary reasons for naming an accused before his first appearance in court. Many things can happen before an accused shows up in court, including successful representations to either prosecutors or the court itself to have the case thrown out on any of a number of grounds. And public identification, the rules hold, can damage the innocent.

Yet the whole nation knows what Zuma (colloquially, if not legally) stands accused of. It is a matter of court record, in the trials around his financial adviser Schabir Shaik; it is a matter of parliamentary record, with many speeches touching on it; and it has been widely reported.

Does that make it fair to call him The Accused? Practically, some advocates hold, at least one organisation should be treating him as such.

“Call him what you will, the NPA should be treating Zuma like an accused until they have very good reason not to do so,” said one.

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet


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