/ 4 August 2008

Zuma’s court bid ‘besides the point’

Presidential front-runner Jacob Zuma asked a court on Monday to scrap a long-running graft case against him, a bid the state described as pointless.

Lawyers for the leader of the ruling African National Congress told the Pietermaritzburg High Court that he was not consulted when the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) made an about-turn in its original decision not to prosecute him.

But state advocate Wim Trengove said Zuma’s bid to have the decision to prosecute him declared unlawful was ”with respect, besides the point”.

Zuma faces a charge of racketeering, four charges of corruption, a charge of money laundering and 12 charges of fraud related to the multibillion-rand government arms deal.

Trengove said a decision to prosecute set off a series of events, including the accused’s right to defend himself. Disputes over the decision to prosecute should be decided in the criminal trial and not in a separate action, he told Judge Chris Nicholson.

”It [the decision to prosecute] is merely a decision to trigger a hearing,” said Trengove.

He said the application brought by Zuma did not mean that he was innocent. ”What it [the application] says, is that, ‘I should not be put on trial because the decision was unfair.”’

Trengove said the ultimate examination of the rights would take place during the criminal trial.

Earlier, Zuma’s lawyer, Kemp J Kemp, presented arguments around the interpretation of section 179(5)(d) of the Constitution.

Zuma is claiming that the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) was obliged in terms of that section to give him the opportunity to make representations before it decided to prosecute him in 2005 and 2007.

Zuma is claiming that the decision to prosecute him was a reversal of a decision taken by the former national prosecutions chief, Bulelani Ngcuka. He announced in August 2003 that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) would not prosecute Zuma, because it did not believe that it had a ”winnable case”.

But after Zuma’s financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was found guilty of corruption in 2005, the state decided to charge Zuma after all.

Zuma faces a charge of racketeering, four charges of corruption, a charge of money laundering and 12 charges of fraud.

The two South African subsidiaries of French arms manufacturer Thales International (formerly Thomson-CFS) — Thint Holdings (Southern Africa) and Thint — are co-accused and each face a charge of racketeering and two counts of corruption.

The charges related to the arms deal where Zuma allegedly used his influence to get lucrative arms contracts for Shaik’s Nkobi Holdings, in return for payments totalling more than R4-million.

Nkobi Holdings and Thomson-CSF Holdings owned African Defence Systems, which won arms-deal contracts.

Zuma further allegedly agreed to protect Thint Holdings (formerly known as Thomson-CSF Holdings) from an investigation into alleged corruption in the arms deal, in return for a R500 000-a-year bribe.

So far, Zuma has been mostly unsuccessful in attempts to block the state’s case. Last week, a Constitutional Court challenge by Zuma failed when he contested the lawfulness of search-and-seizure operations by the state.

On Monday, Nicholson said Thint could be released from the current action and postponed its criminal case to December 8, according to state prosecutor Billy Downer.

A few hundred supporters, including top leaders from the African National Congress, South African Communist Party and Congress of South African Trade Unions, turned up to show solidarity. It was a far cry from the 10 000 people that was punted by the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association.

The police were out in full force, expecting ”large crowds”, but even a night vigil for Zuma did not attract masses of people.

As arguments continued in court after lunchtime, more and more supporters arrived, whistling and dancing, including a man dressed in an overall touting a plastic machine gun.

The ANC repeated claims that Zuma was being persecuted but the NPA fired back, challenging the party to back up the accusation with evidence.

Zuma, wearing a dark blue suit and chequered tie, slipped unnoticed into the court, avoiding photographers, television crews and his supporters who had set up a stage for him to address the crowds.

The ANC came out against Zuma’s detractors.

”Mr Zuma has been found guilty in the court of public opinion because the NPA has consistently sent messages … that are incorrect,” ANC spokesperson Jessie Duarte told reporters outside the court.

Asked who within the NPA was persecuting Zuma, she replied: ”We don’t know. We only know that it is the NPA that is persecuting Zuma.”

The veterans’ association’s Ayanda Dlodlo agreed. She told his supporters: ”We strongly believe the case against him is political.”

But NPA spokesperson Tlali Tlali told reporters: ”There’s a rule of law which says ‘he who alleges must prove’ … We have yet to see a shred of evidence to that effect.”

Zuma’s case has had a ripple effect on politics in South Africa. He is the front-runner to be elected as president next year and the ongoing uncertainty over his legal fate has cast a shadow over his election campaign.

Ngcuka, the first man to mention publicly Zuma’s alleged involvement in the corruption charges, eventually resigned from office after a leak in the media accused him of being an apartheid spy.

His predecessor, Willem Heath, who was also investigating the arms deal, resigned in 2000. This came after the justice minister at the time, Penuell Maduna, announced that he would disband the Heath unit.

Around the same time, Zuma told Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts that there was no need to probe the arms deal.

After Ngcuka’s departure, Vusi Pikoli was appointed as chief prosecutor but he has since been suspended by President Thabo Mbeki in a separate matter.

Recent media reports have also pulled Mbeki into allegations of bribery in the arms deal.

Since Zuma’s election as ANC president at Polokwane last December, the ANC, which has repeatedly claimed that Zuma is being persecuted, has announced that it will disband the Scorpions. — Sapa