Zuma Trial : 'We'll Put Mbeki on the Stand'
Mail and Guardian
Rapule Tabane, Vicki Robinson
Jacob Zuma's upcoming fraud and corruption trial threatens to become the next round of the ugly power struggle in the African National Congress, with the trial potentially being used to embarrass President Thabo Mbeki by placing him on the witness stand.
The state lodged papers in the Durban High Court on Wednesday applying for a postponement of the trial of Zuma and French arms company Thint, and argument will be heard in the Pietermaritzburg High Court when the trial begins on July 31. Both Zuma and Thint have previously indicated they would oppose a postponement.
Zuma told the Daily Dispatch this week that any delays "would give rise to a lot of suspicions … Justice delayed is justice denied."
He added that he was suspicious of the National Prosecuting Authority’s motives. “If you make criminal charges against somebody … you must have made up your mind. You can’t make a big rush to charge and then the next thing you are not ready to charge.
“It makes me think a lot of things; it gives rise to a lot of suspicions.”
Zuma is to appear on charges of fraud and corruption linked to the Schabir Shaik trial, in which the trial judge found there had been a "generally corrupt relationship" between the two.
It is understood that the National Prosecuting Authority is seeking a postponement because it remains unclear about whether evidence crucial to the prosecution case can be used in court. It is awaiting the outcome of a legal process in Mauritius and appeals in the South African courts relating to documents seized during Scorpions raids on Zuma and his associates last year.
However, the biggest headache facing the ANC is the possibility that Mbeki may be called to testify in the trial. At issue is a letter signed by Zuma and sent to Gavin Woods, former chairperson of Parliament’s watchdog committee, Scopa, in January 2001. The letter — which lambasted Scopa’s planned investigation of the arms deal and insisted there was no need for the Heath special investigating unit to be involved in it — was an important plank of the prosecution case against Shaik.
In his judgement, Judge Hilary Squires found the letter was additional proof that Zuma was fulfilling the conditions of the R500 000 annual bribe he allegedly received from French arms manufacturer Thomson CSF, now Thales, which forms part of one of the main contracting consortia in the arms deal.
However, in a Sunday Independent interview earlier this year, Mbeki admitted to authorising the letter.
The Mail & Guardian has learnt from several sources close to Zuma that if necessary, his defence will subpoena Mbeki to take the stand and answer questions relating to the arms deal and, in particular, the letter.
Mbeki has already expressed reluctance to testify in court, commenting that if he is called to testify it would affect the image of the office of the president.
But Zuma’s advisers are confident that the case will backfire politically in any event. They believe that, by proceeding to charge Zuma when previous National Prosecuting Authority head Bulelani Ngcuka warned that there was no winnable case, current head Vusi Pikoli has placed himself in a difficult position.
"No new evidence has emerged since Ngcuka’s comments in 2003. We suspect that Zuma had to be charged to justify his being fired as deputy president a month earlier," said one.
"Now that he has been charged, the whole thing is exploding. The Scorpions will have to wriggle themselves out of this case without losing face."
The ANC Youth League has challenged the National Prosecuting Authority to proceed with the case or drop it, while the Congress of South African Trade Unions plans to march on National Prosecuting Authority offices in KwaZulu-Natal to make the same demand.
"It would be a travesty of justice if this case was postponed again after Zuma was investigated for over five years. If there is no case, the Scorpions must admit they charged him out of political expediency," said league spokesperson Zizi Kodwa.
Meanwhile, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has told the M&G that the federation’s national structures are likely to endorse the resolution this past weekend by its KwaZulu-Natal provincial congress calling on Mbeki to apologise for dismissing Zuma. This was partly because the truth had emerged about the Scopa letter, Vavi said.
In a lengthy interview with the M&G, Vavi said the call for an apology was "generally felt" in Cosatu. "I have a lot of sympathy for that, particularly because Judge Squires found Zuma’s 'generally corrupt' relationship with Shaik on the basis of that letter, which it turns out Zuma didn’t write," he said.
The tripartite alliance will convene an urgent meeting in August to address the growing rupture between Cosatu, the South African Communist Party and the ANC over Zuma, but more broadly over the future of the alliance.
"We want to see if we’re still moving in the same direction and have the same theoretical understanding of the national democratic revolution and the struggle for socialism," Vavi said. "We’re not asking the ANC to embrace socialism — we understand their motive force seeks to unite a multi-class society. But we want an ANC that is not hostile to socialism, [a fact] that has placed the [ruling party’s] alliance partners in a serious moral dilemma."
Vavi said that the top-heavy relationship between the state and the ANC on the one hand, and the state and the alliance on the other, would be central to the August meeting. The alliance partners had become increasingly concerned that the ANC "takes its tune from government, rather than the reverse", he said.
"The ANC follows the command of the state and won’t even shift a comma. Cosatu complains about being marginalised but the ANC is increasingly finding itself in exactly the same camp — it’s lost its ability to lead the struggle of its mass base because its reference point has become government."
Sources say Mbeki and Vavi have never had a one-on-one meeting. Asked to confirm this, Vavi refused to comment.
Vavi has had to walk a fine line between appeasing an overwhelmingly dominant group in the federation, which backs Zuma as their presidential candidate, and maintaining the federation’s integrity regarding issues of principle —including sexual responsibility and financial probity — thrown up by the Zuma saga.
Achieving this balancing act is particularly gruelling ahead of Cosatu’s elective congress, scheduled for September, as some disaffected union leaders will be baying for his blood.
"Put it this way, the months leading up to the 2003 congress were much smoother than this one," he said. "There are lots of ruptures [in the federation] that have to do with the major problems facing the ANC. The underlying issue is the question of loyalty to Jacob Zuma. That is going to make it one of the more difficult congresses."
I-Net Bridge has reported that Mbeki’s office has "no recollection" of a meeting held with French arms company Thomson CSF, but said if such a meeting did take place it must have been "in a situation with others or of such import that it held no meaningful significance".
This was the response to communication from the Democratic Alliance’s public accounts spokesperson Eddie Trent, who had asked the president whether he had met Thomson CSF in December 1998 — around the 17th of that month.
Trent said in an immediate response that: "It is clear from this response from Minister [in the Presidency Essop] Pahad that someone is not telling the whole truth. Either Thomson CSF fabricated a fax [indicating that a meeting took place] or the Presidency is simply refusing to reveal all the facts."
Thint — the South African arm of Thomson CSF/Thales — was awarded a R1,6-billion tender to fit the combat suite for South Africa’s new corvettes, part of South Africa’s controversial multibillion-rand arms deal.
With acknowledgement to Rapule Tabane, Vicki Robinson and Mail & Guardian.