The start of the corruption trial of South Africa’s scandal-tainted ex-president Jacob Zuma, which was slated to start on Monday, has been postponed to May 26.
Zuma is facing 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, then the equivalent of nearly $5.0 billion.
The 79-year-old Zuma, who was at the time serving as deputy president to Thabo Mbeki, is accused of accepting bribes totalling four million rand from one of the firms, French defence giant Thales.
The case has been postponed numerous times as Zuma lodged a string of motions to have the charges dropped.
In the latest snag last month, all of Zuma’s lawyers quit without explanation.
But his new lawyer, Thabani Masuku, told the court Monday: “Zuma is ready to proceed with trial, he has always been ready to proceed with trial”.
Zuma has previously described the trial as a “political witch hunt”.
Nearly everyone rose as Zuma, dressed in a dark blue suit, entered the wood-panelled courtroom at the Pietermaritzburg High Court.
In response, he clasped his hands in front of his chest.
A man in the public gallery chanted “Long live Jacob Zuma, long live!”
Dozens of people, including senior ruling African National Congress (ANC) officials like the recently suspended party secretary-general Ace Magashule, rallied in a show of support for the embattled former head of state.
“I am here to support president Zuma,” Magashule told AFP, dismissing the trial as “so political”.
A crowd of supporters dressed in yellow party T-shirts chanted outside the court house, waving ANC flags.
“We should allow president Zuma, with grace and dignity, to rest at home,” said ANC lawmaker and former North West provincial premier Supra Mahumapelo.
He said Zuma has “consistently maintained no one is above the law. He has always submitted himself to the law. But at his advanced age, he should be allowed to go into obscurity and we to move forward as a society.”
In power between 2009 and 2018, Zuma was forced to resign by the ANC after a mounting series of scandals.