CAPE TOWN - Just less than two months after he was forced from power, former president Jacob Zuma will on Friday appear in court to face a raft of corruption charges that has haunted him for more than a decade and shifted the country's political course.
Zuma is set to appear in the Durban High Court to answer to 16 charges that stem from the multi-billion rand arms deal the country negotiated in the late 1990s, along with representatives from French arms manufacturer Thales.
It is common knowledge that Zuma is said to have received 783 illicit payments, channeled through his former financial advisor Schabir Shaik, who was convicted of fraud for his role in the affair but served only a fraction of his 15-year sentence before he was freed on medical parole.
The charges against the then would-be president were withdrawn in April 2009, easing his path to power but he spent the next nine years fighting and ultimately losing a long battle with the official opposition to have the decision to drop the case reviewed.
National Director of Public Prosecutions Shaun Abrahams announced in mid March that there was a reasonable prospect of conviction and said Zuma would be prosecuted for one count of racketeering, two counts of corruption, one count of money laundering and 12 counts of fraud.
Abrahams had long been ridiculed as a Zuma stooge, ready to do his bidding to the point of bringing stillborn fraud charges against then finance minister Pravin Gordhan in late 2016. But once Zuma lost the leadership of the ANC, and soon afterwards the presidency itself, he lost the leverage to protect himself from criminal prosecution.
While he was edging Zuma out of office in a week of one-on-one talks, President Cyril Ramaphosa made it plain that there would be no deal to guarantee him protection from prosecution.
As Zuma clung on, resisting the ruling party's ultimatum to quit or be forced out by midnight on February 14, the Hawks raided the Saxonwold home of the Gupta family in a stroke of gunboat diplomacy.
Zuma quit in a late night televised address on the same day, and a month later the charges were back on the court roll.
Like his rape trial in 2006, the corruption case is sure to bring diehard supporters to the court to protest his innocence and question the integrity of the judiciary and the current administration.
Zuma was acquitted on that charge, and portrayed as the victim of a political plot. Back then the political opponent was Thabo Mbeki and the political ally and supporter in chief was ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema. On Wednesday, Black First Land First, lead by Malema's ally turned foe Andile Mngxitama, appeared to assume that role when he said Zuma was a victim of a "well-orchestrated plan by white monopoly capital".
"These charges come very late and were timed. It's shocking to hear leaders of the ANC saying members of the ANC mustn't come and support their own member. We as comrades support each other," Mngxitama told a media briefing where the National Interfaith Council of South Africa and the Commission for Religious Affairs, among others, pledged their support for the former president.
Thousands of supporters in Durban were due to hold a night vigil for Zuma on Thursday, and police were calling in reinforcements to monitor the event.
The state has a list of 207 witnesses, though prosecutors are not expected to call all of them to the stand.
The list includes former parliamentarians Andrew Feinstein, who left the country after doggedly trying to expose corruption in the arms deal, and Gavin Woods, the former chairman of the watchdog Standing Committee on Public Accounts, who Zuma tried to dissuade from further probing the affair.
It stretches back to 2003, when then justice minister Penuell Maduna said, perplexingly, that there was a prima facie case against Zuma but it was impossible to prosecute.
It later emerged in court documents that Mbeki at the time allegedly offered Zuma R20 million to walk away from politics. He chose not to, and was fired by Mbeki as deputy president in 2005.
It escalated a bitter political rivalry that saw Zuma eventually dislodge him from top office only to suffer the same fate 13 years later, followed by the return of a criminal case that never really went away.
African News Agency/ANA