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.
But whether the cunning and charismatic 79-year-old 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.
Ensconced in his home in rural Nkandla — refurbished during his 2009-2018 presidency with millions of dollars of public money in the name of “security upgrades” — Zuma often appears to be baiting his opponents and the judiciary.
His middle name, Gedleyihlekisa, means “one who laughs while crushing his enemies” in Zulu.
But his public persona is more approachable, as in a TikTok video posted last week showing Zuma dancing with some of his granddaughters.
– ‘Secrets’ –
From humble beginnings herding cattle, self-educated Zuma rose to become a leading figure in the anti-apartheid struggle and ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.
As well as enjoying fervent grassroots support and backing among the political class, “he was in charge of intelligence… and he holds a lot of secrets” that he has threatened to spill, said independent political analyst Asanda Ngoasheng.
Affectionately known to his supporters as “JZ” or “Msholozi”, Zuma’s role as intelligence chief made him the feared hunter of traitors and informers during the ANC’s apartheid-era exile.
He also spent 10 years on Robben Island as a political prisoner.
But his fall from grace was to come just a year before the end of his second presidential term, when he became enmeshed in a web of scandals and alleged abuse of power.
Since then, he has constantly played cat-and-mouse with the anti-corruption commission that he himself set up in early 2018 in an abortive bid to convince the country that he had nothing to hide.
– Rape allegations –
For now, 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.
The former president is no stranger to the courts.
In 2006, he was acquitted on charges of raping the 31-year-old HIV-positive daughter of one of his former comrades.
He shocked the country when he told the court he had showered to supposedly avoid contracting HIV after having unprotected sex with the young woman.
Widely mocked for espousing an idea with no backing in science, Zuma was drawn for years afterwards by local cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro as having a shower spout affixed to his head.