Jacob Zuma, the former president of South Africa, is 80. But he seems to remember how to use old tactics to survive.
On Thursday, he went on trial to face 783 counts of corruption, fraud, money laundering and related charges stemming from alleged kickbacks in a 1990s arms deal.
But his legal team wanted to remove the prosecutor, a matter that had already been decided by higher courts.
With a new judge hearing the case after the previous judge recused himself in January, the issue of Zuma’s attempt to get rid of lead prosecutor Billy Downer surfaced in the Pietermaritzburg High Court session.
This matter had already been dismissed by the previous judge. The matter was then taken up by a full bench of the High Court, and on appeal, Zuma fell at each hurdle.
Zuma’s team argued that the revived application to remove Downer for allegedly failing to take an impartial approach to Zuma’s prosecution was not more of Zuma’s notorious ‘Stalingrad defence’ of arguing every conceivable legal point in order to further distract justice and prevent the start of evidence in the much-delayed trial.
Zuma’s determination to remove Downer — who in 2006 successfully prosecuted Zuma’s friend and former ‘financial advisor’ Shabir Shaik on the same charges now facing Zuma — was underpinned by an announcement to the new presiding officer that Zuma had lodged a ‘final appeal’ with the Constitutional Court against earlier findings that Downer was entitled to prosecute the case.
While the dispute over whether Downer can act for the state is seen by legal experts as fundamentally irrelevant to what the state insists is a very strong and winnable case against Zuma, the issue of Downer’s status must first be resolved before the actual trial can begin.
Zuma fought unsuccessfully all the way to the Concourt over whether he had the right to privately prosecute both Downer and legal journalist Karyn Maughan for allegedly leaking and publishing Zuma’s medical condition.
That case was recently dismissed by the Constitutional Court, which ruled that Zuma’s attempted prosecution of Downer and Maughan was unlawful, but that has not stopped Zuma’s legal team from revisiting the alleged issue of Downer’s ‘bias’ against Zuma.
For observers of Zuma’s various ongoing legal problems, the renewed effort to remove Downer from the prosecution team seemed like a time warp back to two years ago, when the exact same argument was unsuccessfully made to the previous trial judge.
Advocate Dali Mpofu, appearing for the former president, told the court that after the Constitutional Court had been approached, the issue was once again “live” and required the new judge’s assessment.
“What has since happened is that as of 25 October…the application for leave to appeal in that matter (in the Constitutional Court) was served,” said Mpofu.
Having heard all these arguments and having rejected Zuma’s legal efforts to remove Downer from the prosecution team, former trial judge Piet Koen recused himself from the case earlier this year.
“I have come to the conclusion that I must recuse myself from the trial,” Judge Koen declared at the time.
“This is what the proper administration of justice, the Constitution and my conscience dictates,” he said, setting the stage for a repeat of Zuma’s efforts to remove Downer from the case.
The state responded to the repetition of previously heard and rejected arguments against Downer by saying that to allow it would be to invite a “festival of Stalingrad tactics”, adding that Zuma’s future intentions to oppose every single state prosecutor had already been hinted at.
Zuma, 80, who served as South Africa’s president between 2009 and 2018, has pleaded not guilty to charges of accepting bribes from French defence contractor Thales in the case, which now dates back nearly 25 years.
He is charged with fraud, corruption, racketeering and money laundering and, if found guilty, could face the same 15-year jail term as Shaik.