More at Stake in 'Shaik Trial' than Fraud
It is businessman Schabir Shaik and his companies that will face corruption and fraud charges on Monday in the Durban High Court, but it is neither Shaik nor his actions that is fuelling the intense interest that is apparently gripping the country over the "Shaik trial".
Ironically, in the proverbial dock are a number of people, most of whom will probably not even come near the court, and a number of issues, of which only a few may come up.
First, there is the multibillion rand arms deal, known officially as the Strategic Defence Package Acquisition Programme.
Arms deals - the buying and selling of them - conjure up hard-eyed men jetting around the world and cutting deals in smoky rooms. Mystery, intrigue and a kind of sleazy glamour are what the phrase "arms deal" offers.
For years allegations have been made that certain people in high places here cashed in on the programme.
No wonder then about the fascination that is engendered by the state's allegation that arms dealer Thint (formerly known as Thomson-CSF SA) was asked by Shaik, financial advisor to Jacob Zuma, the deputy president, to pay Zuma R500 000 a year "as a bribe".
In exchange, Zuma was supposed to have offered "protection" against investigations into the arms deal and support for future arms projects.
The deputy president is also a major focus, for both political and personal reasons, so much so that some have referred to this trial as "Hamlet Without the Prince". For at this point Zuma is not on the witness list nor has either side indicated that it will call him.
In one of the more bizarre occurrences in the long run-up to this trial, Bulelani Ngcuka, the former national director of public prosecutions, announced last year that there existed a prima facie case against Zuma in connection with the charges that Shaik is now facing, but that it had been decided not to charge him. Was this decision taken as a result of pressure from high places?
If ANC tradition is taken as a guide, Zuma, who is also said to be enormously popular with rank and file members of the party, is next in line for the presidency - provided of course that his hands are shown to be clean.
Additionally, the rumour mill has it that certain prominent members of the ruling clique do not want Zuma as the next president and even that the Scorpion investigation into Shaik, and now this trial, were ignited and propelled by an anti-Zuma conspiracy.
It is not surprising then that some people argue that Zuma's chances of becoming president will be on trial alongside Shaik.
Everyone likes to discover that the high and mighty have exactly the same problems as he or she does. The details in the court papers of Zuma's personal financial affairs - the runaway overdraft, the dishonoured cheques, and especially his financial difficulties in building his home at Nkandla, which is said to have galvanised the request for "the bribe" - are among the trial's largest titillations.
One result of the Scorpion investigations into Shaik was the discovery of documents and transactions related to Mac Maharaj, former transport minister and anti-apartheid underground operative who worked with Zuma and the Shaik family.
This led in turn to the Hefer Commission because Maharaj argued that Ngcuka was gunning for him and Zuma, his commanding officer in ANC intelligence, because Ngcuka knew that Maharaj and Zuma were aware that Ngcuka had been a spy for the apartheid government. (The commission found that Ngcuka had not been one.)
Yet Zuma never gave evidence before the commission, one of the most remarkable omissions of all time.
So, tomorrow's trial is also to some extent part two of the Hefer Commission. The question that needs a reply is: has the investigation of, and focus on Shaik, Zuma's personal financial advisor, been an investigation into corruption and fraud or an attempt to "get" Zuma?
Soon after the Hefer Commission, Lawrence Mushwana, the public protector, found that Ngcuka had "abused" Zuma by stating that a prima facie case existed against him but not charging him.
The question: was Ngcuka a patsy of the anti-Zuma conspirators, or even one of the co-conspirators, or was he merely doing his job?
Also on trial then is Ngcuka's reputation, even if he has retired from public life, as is the reputation and perhaps even the future existence of the Scorpions and the directorate of public prosecutions in general.
They have been criticised for "abusing" their wide powers and it is no secret that merging them with the police has been mooted in government circles.
Finally, it could be argued that what is really touching the nerve of South Africa is that the Struggle is on trial.
For the struggle against apartheid was not only about ending racism and oppression but also about ridding South Africa of a greedy and corrupt (white) oligarchy.
If Schabir Shaik - and, by extension, Zuma - are shown to have been as corrupt as those they fought to dislodge, what does that say about the country's central moral touchstone?
With acknowledgements to Jeremy Gordin and the Sunday Argus.