Zuma corruption trial on hold till November, at the earliest

The Pietermaritzburg high court on Monday postponed the corruption case against Jacob Zuma until mid-October to allow time for the constitutional court to pronounce on the former president’s latest application in his long quest to dislodge state prosecutor Billy Downer.

But 17 October is simply a holding date. Should the apex court by then have settled the interlocutory matter, the trial would proceed on November 7, Judge Piet Koen held.

“If not, a further holding date will have to be determined, but let’s cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said.

Zuma turned to the constitutional court for leave to appeal on 10 June after supreme court of appeal (SCA) president Mandisa Maya turned down his application for her to reconsider the dismissal of his bid to appeal the rejection of a special plea in which he argued that Downer lacked the standing to prosecute him. 

In papers, he argued that Maya had misdirected herself on several counts and made ominous mention of the July 2021 unrest as a calamity that came after he was treated unfairly by the courts.

The high court in May postponed the case pending Maya’s decision, which she said was delayed by administrative woes at the SCA

At that hearing, Koen anticipated that should she dismiss Zuma’s approach, which she finally did on 20 May, the accused would petition the constitutional court.

“So all we can do is sit out this process of further appeals or further applications along the path of appeals,” he said at the time.

On Monday, Downer indicated the state had filed papers in response to his application on 17 June but, to date, there had been no decision in the matter.

“We have made our own inquiries through the state attorney and we have determined that the issue has not been resolved; there has been no order out of the constitutional court … so we are in the same position as we were last time waiting for the final order, whichever way it goes, from the constitutional court. 

“Last time, it was the SCA. The position has been replicated. We cannot now postpone to a trial date.”

He proposed that a holding date be set in early September but Koen said he thought it wiser to leave more time.

“My thinking on it, Mr Downer, from what I understand [of] the processes that are followed in the constitutional court, is to allow a bit more time, also with their actual term period which takes them up to the end of September.”

Zuma contends that Downer has turned the case against him into a personal crusade and lacks the requisite impartiality to pursue the trial. He argued this in a special plea filed last year in terms of section 106(1)(h) of the Criminal Procedure Act. The plea was two-fold, with his counsel arguing that should the court find that bias robbed Downer of the title to prosecute the matter, their client would qualify for acquittal in terms of section 104(6) of the same act.

Koen dismissed the special plea in February and set down the trial for resumption in April, but Zuma’s inevitable approach to the SCA has ensured that the trial is now effectively a matter for next year.

The judge was reluctant to allow the trial to stall but held that he was allowed no discretion by the Superior Courts Act, which Zuma’s counsel invoked to argue that in terms of section 18 a decision that is subject to appeal, or an application for leave to appeal, is suspended barring exceptional circumstances. 

The state maintains that his complaint against Downer is a spurious chapter in a long history of “Stalingrad defence”, forcing delays in the case where he faces 

12 counts of fraud, two of corruption and one each of racketeering and money-laundering.

The charges stem from alleged bribes Zuma took from French arms manufacturer Thales, through his former financial adviser ,Schabir Shaik.

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