A long-delayed corruption trial of Jacob Zuma has opened in South Africa but was adjourned almost immediately for nine days.
Zuma, who was president from 2009 to 2018, faces charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering relating to a $2.5bn (£1.98bn) deal to buy European military hardware to upgrade South Africa’s armed forces in 1994.
The 79-year-old denies the charges against him. He has alleged his case has been prejudiced by lengthy delays in bringing the matter to trial and political interference.
Lawyers for the former president are applying for the lead state prosecutor to stand down on undisclosed grounds, and the postponement is to allow their request to be prepared.
Zuma has been accused of using delaying tactics to avoid the trial.
Patricia de Lille, the minister of public works and infrastructure and a key witness in the case, said that after 22 years a further week’s delay was bearable.
“We have all been waiting for this day so South Africans can hear the truth and former president Jacob Zuma can put his side of the case … We are all equal before the law,” she said outside the court.
The case has become a battleground for factions within the ruling African National Congress party, which remains deeply divided. Successive corruption scandals have badly hurt the reputation of the ANC, which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Ace Magashule, the party’s secretary general, who was suspended this month after refusing to step down despite facing trial for allegedly playing a key role in a $15m (£10.7m) contract to find and remove asbestos from homes in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Free State province, travelled to the court in Pietermaritzburg to support Zuma.
“Zuma was the president of the ANC. He must be supported at all times. As ANC leaders, that’s how we were brought up in the ANC,” Magashule said.
Several other senior ANC figures accused of corruption and about 100 members of the party rallied outside the court to support the former president.
Public outrage has been building for years but was fuelled over the last year by a series of allegations of huge sums corruptly earned on government contracts for emergency supplies to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and grants to support the most needy.
South Africa has been hit badly by the pandemic, with excess mortality figures suggesting more than twice as many have died from the disease as the official total of 55,000.
Zuma’s successor as president, Cyril Ramaphosa, a labour activist turned wealthy tycoon, has taken steps to stamp out graft but has only recently begun to score high-profile victories.
Prosecutors threw out the charges against Zuma 12 years ago in a contentious decision that opened the way for him to become president. They returned to the case after his controversial presidency ended.
Zuma was ousted in 2018 after a bitter internal battle in the ANC and amid public outrage over separate allegations of mismanagement and corruption that severely affected state-owned companies.
In a public hearing last year as part of a judicial commission of inquiry set up as he left power, Zuma denied he had presided over an immense system of corruption and patronage that drained billions from the country’s exchequer. He told the inquiry he was a victim of a plot by foreign intelligence agencies seeking his downfall. He then walked out of the hearings and faces a possible jail sentence after failing to reappear.
Analysts said Zuma’s refusal to appear before the inquiry was one of the most significant tests of South Africa’s democratic institutions for many years.