Jacob Zuma’s long-running corruption trial will resume on August 10, a South African judge ruled on Tuesday after the ex-president sought to have the case postponed because of the pandemic and recent unrest.
The order marks a victory for Zuma, who is serving a 15-month jail term for contempt of court on an unrelated matter.
Zuma appeared in court on Monday via video link from his prison, where he was jailed on July 8 for snubbing an order from South Africa’s top judges to appear before a corruption probe.
Following his jailing, South Africa plunged into chaos, with looting and rioting erupting in Zuma’s home region of KwaZulu-Natal before spreading to Johannesburg.
A total of 215 people were killed, according to the authorities, while the total financial cost of the unrest could reach 50 billion rand ($3.4 billion), according to consultancy Intellidex.
The violence, which subsided by the weekend, was widely seen as at least partially in response to Zuma’s imprisonment.
The 79-year-old faces 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering related to the 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and equipment from five European arms firms when he was deputy president.
He is accused of taking bribes from one of the firms, French defence giant Thales, which has been charged with corruption and money laundering.
Both Zuma and Thales have entered pleas of not guilty.
‘Constitution has prevailed’
“The trial is adjourned to 10 to 13 August,” Judge Piet Koen said during Tuesday’s hearing.
Zuma’s foundation immediately lauded the decision, tweeting: “The Constitution has prevailed at last!”
“There can be NO virtual criminal proceedings in the absence of an accused person who is unable to consult with his lawyers,” it said.
But the judge ordered the parties in the case to furnish the court with reasons why the August sitting should not be held virtually.
Lawyers are pushing for Zuma to appear physically in court arguing that virtual hearings deprive him of the right to a “public trial” and to consult his defence.
But Wim Trengove, a lawyer representing the state, had on Monday argued against a postponement, labelling Zuma’s request as “Stalingrad: Season 27” in an apparent reference to the ex-leader’s litigation strategy.
The sensational case has been postponed numerous times in more than a decade as Zuma, who has described the trial as a “political witch hunt”, has made repeated bids to have the charges dropped.
Observers had previously feared that Monday’s hearing could reignite tensions that had eased by the weekend.
However, the situation outside the court was calm.
The charismatic ex-leader is a member of the country’s numerically dominant Zulu ethnic group.
He has retained a fervent support base, especially within the ruling African National Congress (ANC), where loyalists portray him as a man of the people and a defender of the poor.
The ex-president and his backers have repeatedly dismissed scrutiny of his conduct as politically motivated and warned his jailing would spark unrest.
But they deny being behind the recent turmoil.
Most of the allegations under investigation by the ongoing corruption inquiry, which is separate from the arms deal trial, involve three brothers from a wealthy Indian business family, the Guptas.
The family won lucrative government contracts and allegedly picked ministers during Zuma’s nine years in office.
The mounting scandals forced the ANC to push out Zuma in 2018 and replace him with Cyril Ramaphosa, a former trade union leader who became a wealthy businessman in post-apartheid South Africa.