Jacob Zuma’s attorney of record, Eric Mabuza, has withdrawn his services less than a month before the former president will go on trial for corruption — and one week after the appeal court ordered him to repay the state at least R15-million in legal fees spent on the matter so far.
Mabuza’s Houghton-based firm, Mabuza Attorneys, on Wednesday served notice of the withdrawal from the case to the registrar of the KwaZulu-Natal high court, the state prosecutor Billy Downer and to the attorneys for the local subsidiary for French arms maker Thales, the second accused in the case.
The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) said it noted the withdrawal.
“Suffice to say, the state remains ready to proceed with the trial from 17 May 2021,” the prosecuting authority tersely added.
Mabuza confirmed that Zuma’s senior counsel, advocate Muzi Sikhakhane, has similarly terminated his services. Sikhakhane did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mabuza and Sikhakhane have also represented the former president in his legal standoff with the Zondo commission, which now sees him awaiting a Constitutional Court ruling that he be jailed for contempt. It is reliably understood that Zuma has not paid his lawyers for some time.
Zuma faces 16 charges of fraud, corruption, racketeering and money-laundering stemming from South Africa’s arms acquisition programme in the late 1990s.
This issue has haunted him since 2005, when his former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was found guilty of soliciting a bribe on his behalf and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Zuma was due to go on trial in 2006, after losing a bid to have the charges stayed on appeal. But in 2009 these were controversially withdrawn by the NPA, on the basis of possible perceptions of political meddling regarding the timing of his indictment.
This paved the way for him to become president. The political opposition fought to have the charges reinstated and finally succeeded in 2018, mere months after Zuma’s forced resignation.
Last week the supreme court of appeal (SCA) upheld a Pretoria high court ruling that the state attorney recover at least R15-million paid in legal fees over the years in the corruption case and other matters.
The appellate court found that the decision that the state attorney pay for Zuma’s attorney and counsel in the matter was unlawful, saying he had seemingly been given a blank cheque to fund private legal counsel.
The SCA found that the “funding tap” had been opened for Zuma during the Shaik trial, at which the state funded his legal team to conduct a watching brief.