New trial challenge looms for South Africa’s embattled Zuma

FILE PHOTO: South Africa's President Jacob Zuma attends the 37th Ordinary SADC Summit of Heads of State and Government in the capital, Pretoria, South Africa, August 19, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/File Photo

Forced to resign three years ago in the face of a litany of corruption scandals, embattled former South African president Jacob Zuma is due back in court on Monday in a graft case dating back more than two decades.

FILE PHOTO: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma attends the 37th Ordinary SADC Summit of Heads of State and Government in the capital, Pretoria, South Africa, August 19, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/File Photo

But whether 79-year-old Zuma will answer his accusers is the big question.

The court in Pietermaritzburg is examining 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering relating to a 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and military gear from five European arms firms for 30 billion rand — equal to almost $5.0 billion at the time.

Zuma, then serving as deputy president to Thabo Mbeki, is accused of accepting bribes amounting to four million rand from one of the firms, French defence giant Thales.

He has lodged a string of unsuccessful series of appeals to have the charges dropped.

In the latest development, all his lawyers quit last month, without publicly giving a reason.

Observers speculate the surprise step could be a ploy to seek yet another postponement, ostensibly to allow a new legal team to prepare his defence and further delay the trial.

“It’s almost inevitable that he or his new team (if there is one) will ask for a postponement — and be granted,” said James Grant, a South African lawyer who is not linked to the case.

Zuma’s repeated refusal to testify to the commission has led to a judicial stalemate.

But he has been named directly or indirectly by more than 30 witnesses before the panel, whose findings may be used for investigation and prosecution purposes.