The corruption trial of South Africa’s jailed ex-president Jacob Zuma will resume on Monday despite the deadly violence that has swept the nation after his imprisonment in an unrelated case.
Zuma faces 16 charges of fraud, graft, and racketeering related to a 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats, and military gear from five European arms firms when he was South Africa’s deputy president.
He is accused of pocketing R4 million ($277,000) in bribes from one of the firms, French defence giant Thales, which has been charged with corruption and money laundering.
The trial started in May after numerous postponements and delays, as Zuma’s legal team worked fervently to have the charges dropped.
The 79-year-old Zuma appeared in person for the opening and said he was innocent.
Thales also pleaded not guilty, and the next hearing was set for 19 July.
But things took a nasty turn when on 29 June, Zuma was found guilty of contempt of South Africa’s top court for snubbing graft investigators probing his tenure as president. He was jailed a week later.
The incarceration sparked protests in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), which snowballed into a week of the deadly outbreak of looting and arson that spread to the economic hub Johannesburg, claiming over 200 lives.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who came to office promising to curb graft, said the riots were a “coordinated and well-planned attack” on the country’s young democracy.
“Using the pretext of a political grievance, those behind these acts have sought to provoke a popular insurrection,” Ramaphosa said on Friday night.
Monday’s hearing could reignite tensions that had eased late last week, analysts warn.
South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party forced Zuma — who is a member of the country’s dominant Zulu ethnic group — to resign in 2018 after mounting graft scandals.
But Zuma has retained a fervent support base within the ANC and among the general public, viewed by many as a “people’s man” and a defender of the poor.