Former South African president Jacob Zuma, whose jailing earlier this month triggered some of the worst unrest of the post-apartheid era, appeared by video link in court on Monday to seek a further delay in his corruption trial.
While the government has largely restored order in the streets, there were fears Zuma’s latest court appearance could again trigger violent protests from his support base. But they did not immediately materialise.
Efforts to prosecute the ex-president for allegedly receiving kickbacks over a $2 billion weapons deal in the late 1990s have been seen as a test of South Africa’s ability to hold powerful politicians to account.
Zuma, who has pleaded not guilty to charges including corruption, fraud and money laundering, has evaded prosecution for more than a decade by casting himself as the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt.
Wearing a dark suit and red tie, Zuma, 79, said nothing while one of his lawyers Dali Mpofu argued that the trial should be postponed for Zuma to appear in person as opposed to virtually.
Local television channel Newzroom Afrika showed armoured military vehicles stationed outside the high court in Pietermaritzburg, one of the places worst-affected by the recent unrest.
Mpofu said Zuma had not been able to properly consult his legal team after handing himself over in the early hours of July 8 to start a 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court. He asked for a postponement of up to three weeks, by which time he said he expected the constitutional court to have made a ruling on Zuma’s application to rescind his jail term.
A lawyer for the state argued that the application for a postponement was nothing more than a delaying tactic.
“This application is Stalingrad season 27,” Wim Trengove said, referring to Zuma’s method of fighting his prosecution via every legal means possible – a strategy that has become known locally as his “Stalingrad defence”.
The judge adjourned proceedings until 10 a.m. local time (0800 GMT) on Tuesday.
The constitutional court sentenced Zuma to prison last month for defying an order to appear at an inquiry into high-level corruption during his nine years in power until 2018.
Zuma denies there was far-reaching corruption under his leadership but has refused to cooperate with the inquiry.
One of the main allegations it is testing is that Zuma allowed three Indian-born businessmen, Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta, to plunder state resources and traffic influence over government policy.
The Guptas, who fled South Africa after Zuma was ousted, also deny wrongdoing.
More than 200 people have been killed and hundreds of businesses destroyed in the riots following Zuma’s imprisonment.
Protests initially flared in Zuma’s home province KwaZulu-Natal before escalating into arson and looting in other provinces, fuelled by anger over the poverty and inequality that persist nearly three decades after the end of white minority rule in 1994.
Zuma’s successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa, authorised the deployment of 25,000 soldiers to quell the unrest, and more than 2,500 people have been arrested.