The former South African president Jacob Zuma has been charged with 16 counts of corruption relating to a multibillion dollar arms deal, in a case that is being heralded as bringing much-needed accountability to the country’s politicians.
During a 15-minute hearing early on Friday in Durban, prosecutors said the 75-year-old faces charges including fraud, racketeering and money laundering, and had a request approved to adjourn the case until 8 June so both they and the defence can prepare submissions.
Supporters of the president, who resigned in February amid overwhelming pressure from his own party, flocked in thousands to Durban for the hearing and cheered him as he left court.
“It amazes me when people treat me as if I’ve given up. They want me to be treated as a prisoner,” he told the crowd. “The truth will come out. What have I done? I am innocent until proven guilty.”
Above all else the procedural court hearing demonstrated Mr Zuma’s enduring ability to rouse support among his people. He spoke in Zulu, sang his trademark protest tune “Umshini Wam” (which translates as “Bring [Me] My Machine [Gun]”), and those listening in his home province of Kwa-Zulu Natal drank in every word.
For them, the charges against the former leader represent a politically motivated witchhunt. Heavy-armed riot police guarded the court as marchers carrying placards reading “Hands Off Zuma” and clothed in the yellow, green and black of the ruling ANC party performed apartheid-era protest dances outside.
The speed of Mr Zuma’s fall from president to criminal suspect certainly speaks to a dramatic loss of control since his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, became head of the ANC in December.
Yet for the mainstream in South Africa, the proceedings at the Durban High Court are a welcome development after nine years of Zuma administrations marked by economic stagnation.
Writing ahead of the court appearance in South Africa’s Times Live, political commentator Justice Malala said Mr Zuma had left a legacy of “exploding inequality, booming unemployment and grinding poverty”. He cautioned against the ANC continuing down the path of “embracing fashionable populism” at the expense of real policies, warning: “Jacob Zuma’s greatest gift to the party of [founders] Pixley ka Isaka Seme and John Dube was to drag it down to a breathtakingly fact-free policy-making process.”
What is Zuma accused of?
Mr Zuma faces 16 charges – of corruption, fraud, racketeering and money-laundering – relating to 783 instances of alleged wrongdoing in the 30 billion rand (£1.8bn) arms deal arranged when he was deputy president.
Mr Zuma is suspected of taking bribes from a French arms company amounting to more than 1bn rand (£11m), in the form of 783 payments made via his then-financial adviser Schabir Shaikh.
The charges were set aside in 2009, paving the way for Mr Zuma to run for president, but were re-instated in 2016.
South Africa’s chief prosecutor decided that Mr Zuma should be prosecuted last month. Allegations of corruption dogged Mr Zuma’s time in office, but he has consistently denied any wrong-doing.