Zuma faces having his pension attached as state moves to recover millions

Former president Jacob Zuma risks having his state pension or property attached for failure to pay back R18.2-million in legal aid received from the state after the supreme court ruled it unlawful.

The state attorney’s office said this week it will serve summons on Zuma after a letter of demand delivered to him last year went unheeded.

But Zuma’s attorney has informed the state that he does not have a mandate to receive summons on behalf of his client.

“We now have to work out where to serve it on the former president, whether at Nkandla or elsewhere, but it will be served,” the state attorney’s office said.

There is a further technicality in that interest on the sum needs to be added, from the October date when the letter of demand was issued, and this has to be confirmed by a court.

The figure of R18.2-million was calculated by the state attorney’s office after the supreme court of appeal’s dismissal in May last year of Zuma’s bid to overturn a high court order that he was not entitled to state funding for his legal fees as he fights arms deal corruption charges.

The high court ruled that the state attorney recover at least R15-million it paid for legal fees in his corruption case. 

The appellate confirmed the decision that the state attorney pay for Zuma’s attorney and counsel in the fraud and corruption case stemming from payments he received from French arms dealer Thales and his erstwhile financial adviser Schabir Sheik in the 1990s was unlawful. 

The state’s assistance to Zuma in the matter stretched back to payments to his then lawyer, Michael Hulley, in 2006, and continued until the Democratic Alliance approached the high court to turn off the tap after President Cyril Ramaphosa said in reply to a parliamentary question in 2018 that, by then, it totalled R15.3-million.

In its judgment, the supreme court of appeal (SCA) found that the state had unlawfully paid all of Zuma’s legal costs in a number of other matters, including paying the legal teams of opposing parties in matters where the courts had ruled against the former president. These payments, totalling about R25-million, “lacked any proper legal basis”.

The SCA found that the “funding tap” had been opened for Zuma during the Shaik trial, at which the state funded his legal team, which conducted a watching brief. 

“To have granted Mr Zuma a blank cheque to pay private lawyers is egregious. A web of maladministration appears to have made that possible. Many of the payments have no asserted legal basis whatsoever,” the SCA said.

It said simply stopping further payments was not enough and that money needed to be recovered.

The state attorney’s office then had to calculate the exact amount due.

“This came to R18.2-million and it was certified by the court. We are under court orders to recover the money,” the state attorney’s office said. 

Zuma could win time by going to court to challenge the sum claimed, but if an order against him follows and he fails to respect it, the state attorney can then proceed to attachment.

“If he does not pay, we will have to attach the pension he receives from the state or his property.”

The state attorney’s office indicated that it would not waste time in court quibbling about the exact quantum of the interest calculation.

Sources close to Zuma have said he is out of pocket, partly because of the monthly repayments on state-funded improvements to his Nkandla home, where the constitutional court ordered him to reimburse R7.8-million in 2016.

He parted ways with his attorney of record, Eric Mabuza, and senior counsel, Muzi Sikhakane, in 2021 and cast about for a new legal team, with Dali Mpofu eventually coming to his rescue.

Zuma’s corruption trial is set down to resume in the Pietermaritzburg high court on April 11 after Judge Piet Koen in February dismissed his bid for leave to appeal his ruling striking down a special plea that Billy Downer lacked standing to prosecute him for lack of impartiality. 

The plea was twofold, with Zuma begging for acquittal should he succeed in his bid to have Downer withdrawn.

Zuma then directly petitioned the supreme court for leave to appeal. Though this move was widely expected, papers were only filed on the last day before the deadline to do so passed.

A few days later, on 17 March, Zuma filed papers asking the high court to postpone the trial pending a decision by the SCA.

In its affidavit filed in reply, the National Prosecuting Authority dismisses the application as spurious and part of a well-established delaying strategy.

It argued that the petition to the supreme court did not stall the criminal proceedings, and that it was not in the interest of justice to grant a postponement. 

“The enactment of the Superior Courts Act that effectively disallowed criminal appeals to the SCA before conviction was designed to prevent piecemeal appeals and delays in criminal matters,” its papers say.

“Should the application for postponement be granted, pending the result of the petitions to the SCA (and any further applications for leave to appeal should the SCA dismiss the petitions), the effect in delaying the trial will be to achieve what this court, the legislature and the interests of justice seek to avoid.”

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