Zuma turns to Mbeki
Zuma appeared in court for his first hearing on charges of corruption last Monday, though the trial was quickly deferred to September 5.
High Court Judge Herbert Msimang adjourned the trial within two hours of the court sitting, saying he would allow the prosecution and the defence to prepare heads of argument and replies to the state’s application for a postponement of the trial.
But by Wednesday it had become apparent that the defence would also take the time to brush up on its strategy, now expected to bring in Mbeki as Zuma’s major hope for an acquittal.
Zuma’s defence team has apparently shifted the former deputy president’s defence onto Mbeki’s laps, arguing that it was Mbeki ‘ and not Zuma ‘ who sanctioned the allegedly corrupt arms procurement transaction.
In parts of a 100-page affidavit published by local newspapers on Wednesday, Zuma alleges that Mbeki played an active role in the transaction, and in meetings that took place prior to its conclusion.
“President Mbeki was, in his position as then deputy president and cabinet member, very much involved in the arms deal process.
“Mbeki took an active interest and part in it and engaged with various role players. He has been scurrilously accused of being party to improprieties in this regard. I distance myself from these and condemn the accusations as false.
“However, he is a person who is ideally and obviously suited to depose to the absence of any corruption in the award process.
“And if he does, the prosecution must revisit and rethink the allegations that I was bribed to protect the French interests against exposure for corruption in the deal,” Zuma said in extracts quoted by local daily The Star.
In his affidavit, Zuma said he merely signed a letter that had been drafted by the President’s Office and was addressed to then Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee chairperson Gavin Woods, stating that there was no need for an investigation into the arms deal.
The letter has been at the heart of the corruption charges against Zuma, relating to allegations that he gave French arms company Thint “protection” against investigation into an arms deal in return for a R500 000 a year bribe.
The plot has been thickened by a recent investigation in which special investigations unit the Scorpions cleared Mbeki of any wrongdoing in the arms deal.
Political analyst Keith Gottschalk said last week that Zuma’s affidavit was unlikely to have any serious implications for Mbeki in spite of fears that it could soil the president’s image.
He said the impact would be minimal even if Mbeki were to testify in the trial, particularly considering that Mbeki’s popularity ratings were at an all-time high.
“To remove Mbeki while he is in office would be very sensational and, I think, a lot harder to do. You’d have to persuade ANC branch delegates to vote for that, and all opinion polls continue to show that a higher percentage of South Africans are more favourably disposed to Mbeki than to Zuma,” Gottschalk told Reuters.
Zuma has appeared increasingly agitated by his prolonged prosecution, and has alleged a hidden political hand is using the trial to direct his ouster from political circles.
While addressing a multitude of supporters gathered outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Monday, Zuma expressed his dissatisfaction with the delays in bringing him to trial.
“There are matters that I cannot talk about. I have to be careful of what I say because I may be held in contempt of court . . .
“Those who were in charge previously said there was prima facie evidence against me and they cannot prosecute. Those who are in charge now say there is enough evidence to prosecute, but they say it’s not strong enough”.
Despite persistent denials, the 64 year-old African National Congress (ANC) deputy president is believed to harbour vibrant ambitions of becoming both the ANC and the country’s next president.
During his trial on charges of raping an HIV-positive family friend earlier this year, he charged that his detractors were engaged in a conspiracy to shut him out of the presidential race.
Observers are sceptical about whether or not Zuma will survive the current wave of charges to achieve his political ambitions.
Most have refused to write him off completely from the presidential race despite his now common court appearances.
“Judging by the amount of support that he has managed to maintain despite all the actions and charges that have been brought against him, there is no doubt that Zuma is still a very strong contender (for the presidency).
“But the thing with voters is you will never know when it comes to the ballot (whether they will vote for him or not). His grassroots support is undoubtedly stronger than most of his contenders and that could be the biggest thing working in his favour,” political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi said.
As with his trial on rape allegations, the current corruption trial has attracted a huge number of Zuma supporters, some of whom spent last Sunday night on an all-night vigil in support of “Umsholozi”, as he is affectionately known.
Despite the brushes with the law, even critics admit that Zuma’s chances of clinching the presidency are quite strong.
The weekly, Mail & Guardian believes Zuma is still the “front runner” in the presidential race, and cited his charisma, unifying abilities and strong reputation as a diplomat on the continent as his strongest traits.
However his moral record and shaky stance on HIV/AIDS, as well as a lack of “technocratic ability” have put him on the back foot.
On the other hand, the competition has largely been thin.
The man believed to be Zuma’s strongest contender, businessman and black economic empowerment pioneer Cyril Ramaphosa, strongly rejected speculation that he was interested and planning a swoop for presidency two weeks ago, while many believe Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka will have to work very hard to garner the support to win a presidential election.