The View From …
The opening of a crucial corruption case involving the political future of the country's deputy president, Jacob Zuma, dominated the press in Pretoria this week.
"The trial for South Africa's soul" is how the country's largest newspaper, the Sunday Times, characterised the corruption and fraud case that opened this week in the coastal city of Durban against Schabir Shaik, financial advisor to Mr Zuma.
The courtroom drama has been dubbed Hamlet without the prince, because it is a case in which the central character is absent but it could determine if he is to rule South Africa. The trial will decide if there is something rotten about Mr Zuma and his financial dealings with Mr Shaik.
Mr Shaik is charged with receiving bribes worth more than £200,000 in order to get Mr Zuma to support the purchase of French arms. Although Mr Zuma, 62, is not himself on trial, he is linked to all the charges against Mr Shaik and a front-page article in the Sunday Times reported that the deputy president's name features on every other page of the lengthy charge sheet. A guilty verdict against Mr Shaik would dash Mr Zuma's aspirations to succeed Thabo Mbeki as president in five years. Also at stake is Mr Mbeki's claim that his government will not tolerate any corruption.
"We've got the balls of elephants," claimed a confident Mr Shaik in the influential Mail & Guardian weekly. He said that after years of investigations he is looking forward to demolishing all the charges against him. The dapper Mr Shaik claimed he was merely trying to help the high-living Mr Zuma out of financial difficulties. He said his close relationship with Mr Zuma was forged during the anti-apartheid struggle when he smuggled funds to the African National Congress.
"TV or not TV, that is the question," said the lively daily newspaper This Day when the Monday opening of the Shaik trial was taken up with arguments over whether or not the court case should be televised. Judge Hillary Squires, who was called out of retirement at the age of 80 to hear the sensitive case, ruled against daily broadcasts but agreed that the closing arguments could be shown.
The Shaik case stayed in the headlines with the revelation on Wednesday that Mr Zuma received a gift of 2m rand (£170,000) from the former president Nelson Mandela to support educational and cultural activities in the Zulu community, but that the money was diverted to Mr Shaik and nearly a quarter of it remains unaccounted for. More than 100 witnesses from 10 countries are lined up for the trial, which is likely to grab headlines and comment pages for several months.
The popular Mr Zuma received hearty support from fellow cabinet ministers, the African National Congress and its ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, according to reports in the Pretoria News . Public opinion is also backing Mr Zuma, according to a survey published in the Sunday Independent . The survey found that, among ANC supporters interviewed, 47% believed that Mr Zuma has been "victimised by his enemies", which included a news media that wanted to damage the deputy president's reputation.
The Sunday Times, edited by the leading journalist Mondli Makhanya, hotly denied that it is part of any conspiracy against Mr Zuma. In its editorial, the paper rebutted claims that it published a leaked court document. "We did what any self-respecting publication would do ahead of a major trial: we went to the courthouse and got hold of the public document the same way we would any court papers. Our publication of the charge sheet - which is replete with Mr Zuma's name - discomforted his supporters, who obviously believe that this terrible dream would end if the media stopped reporting the matter."
The powerful newspaper vowed to carry on reporting on the trial. "We will not, as many would like us to do, lie to the South African public by pretending that this is just the trial of a small coastal businessman. It is an important chapter in the life of the this nation and we will treat it as such. The Sunday Times is not and will not be part of anybody's nefarious agenda. We are committed to fair and accurate reporting and to the building of a republic that values integrity in public life."
With acknowledgements to Andrew Meldrum and The Guardian.