South Africa’s former president, Jacob Zuma, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday in a much-postponed corruption case dating back more than two decades.
The 79-year-old faces 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 billion.
Zuma — who at the time was president Thabo Mbeki’s deputy — is accused of accepting bribes totaling four million rand from one of the firms, French defense giant Thales.
Zuma was impassive as he faced the court in the eastern city of Pietermaritzburg, where numerous supporters and relatives were gathered.
Impeccably dressed in a dark blue suit and a red tie, wearing an anti-coronavirus mask, he was repeatedly asked by the judge, Piet Koen, to confirm in person the response of his attorney, given “the magnitude of what we’re dealing with.”
“I plead not guilty,” Zuma said without hesitating.
Thales also pleaded not guilty to charges of corruption and money laundering.
Zuma’s plea concludes years of delay in the long-awaited trial, which many South Africans say will deliver the verdict of history on his turbulent presidency.
Prosecutors intend to call around 200 witnesses.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) forced Zuma to resign in 2018 after a mounting series of scandals.
Critics say under Zuma’s nine-year tenure, corruption and cronyism flourished, and billions of dollars in state assets and business were siphoned off.
His successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, has vowed to stamp out graft but is meeting resistance from pro-Zuma figures who command grassroots support in the ANC.