Senior prosecutor, Advocate Billy Downer, told the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Tuesday morning that it was “quite a milestone” that the parties in the fraud, corruption and racketeering matter involving former president Jacob Zuma and French arms company Thales had agreed on a date for trial, and that the matter would finally proceed.
Legal representatives for Zuma and Thales told the court they had no qualms with the dates.
Zuma was not present in court, with Downer confirming he had asked to be excused, to which the State had agreed.
The area outside the courthouse was quiet, with no roads closed off and none of Zuma’s bused-in supporters in sight – a far cry from the mobile stages, sound systems and crowds for his appearances in 2018 and 2019.
The matter was subsequently postponed and set down for trial by Judge Nkosinathi Chili to be heard over at least two terms, starting on 17 May and running until 20 June. Any further dates will be at the discretion of the presiding judge and judge president.
It took about 10 minutes in court to set the date for a matter that has been in and out of court for well over a decade. Zuma will now have his much-vaunted “day in court” to deny the allegations. He has said several times that the charges are politically motivated, and that he is being “persecuted”.
Downer indicated at the start of proceedings that the state had 217 witnesses available out of the 234 on its list.
He said that according to the pretrial minutes, the matters that were outstanding and keeping the case from getting to trial, had been dealt with.
“Those matters outstanding [included] the results of Thales’ review application to set aside the [Prevention of Organised Crime Act] racketeering certificate. As indicated in the pretrial minutes, this court handed down judgment on 22 January 2021, so that issue has been resolved… Thales has indicated it is not taking the matter further.”
The second issue was the further and better particulars requested by Thales, which the State had provided by 16 February, said Downer. Thales had indicated that issue “was now closed”.
The third issue was Covid-19 and subsequent lockdowns and travel restrictions to and from South Africa, which would have affected Thales and overseas witnesses.
On this point, Downer said there was no way of telling what would happen in the future, but that “none of us think it is a reason to hold up [the start of the trial]”.
“[I]f we were to wait until we had certainty [about Covid-19], we would never get to trial. So that is an issue that we will deal with as it happens, and we all agree that we are all ready for trial, and it is merely a question of, if your lordship is so disposed, setting the trial date.”
Downer said that, as previously indicated, it had already been established in 2020 from the roll planners in KwaZulu-Natal, and from the office of the director of public prosecutions in the province, that the roll was available from 17 May.
“To cut a long story short, we are all ready for trial on 17 May.”
He thanked his “learned friends” for being able to “reach this milestone”.
The case relates to Thales securing a R2.6-billion contract as part of the German Frigate Consortium to provide combat suites for the South African Navy’s four Meko class frigates as part of the 1999 Strategic Defence Procurement Package, known as the Arms Deal.
Zuma, accused one, is facing one count of racketeering, two counts of corruption, one count of money laundering and 12 counts of fraud.
Thales, accused two, is facing one count of racketeering, two counts of corruption and one count of money laundering.
The State contends that Thales bribed Zuma via his former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, to protect the multinational from a probe after the corporation secured the contract.
Zuma is accused of having benefited from 783 payments from Shaik, who in turn received some, if not all, of the money from Thales.
Shaik was found guilty on two counts of corruption and one of fraud in 2005 and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released on medical parole in 2009. DM