JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – A South African court gave prosecutors until early September to prepare corruption charges against Jacob Zuma after lawyers for the would-be-president argued the case — the most explosive one since apartheid — should be thrown out.
The case, which coincides with another trial of lawmakers accused in a travel scam, has focussed the spotlight on government graft in Africa's economic and diplomatic powerhouse.
Zuma emerged triumphant after his two-hour appearance to address several thousand adoring fans and sing an old anti-apartheid song which has become his anthem: "Bring Me My Machine Gun."
Scenes outside the High Court in this southeastern town resembled a campaign rally for the 64-year-old former guerrilla leader who was President Thabo Mbeki's heir apparent until he was fired last year amid allegations he accepted bribes to blunt investigations into a 1999 arms deal.
Zuma's supporters within the governing African National Congress and its trade union and Communist Party allies insist Zuma is the victim of a political plot to deny him the presidency.
"What is clear of late is that there should be other people other than Jacob Zuma accused of corruption," said Zwelinzima Vavi, general-secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
He demanded a new investigation into the multibillion rand deal between the government and arms companies from South Africa and Europe that has already destroyed several political careers.
Defense lawyers have said they will summon Mbeki as a witness box and damaging allegations would fly during any trial.
Prosecutors maintain Zuma was aware of efforts by his friend and former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, to secure him a yearly payment of 500,000 rands, or $70,000, from French arms manufacturer Thint Holdings — formerly Thomson CSF. The company has been charged alongside Zuma.
Zuma also allegedly accepted at least 1.2 million rands, or $170,000, in payments from Shaik to fund an expensive lifestyle, according to prosecutors.
Shaik was convicted on those two corruption counts in June last year and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. His appeal is due to be heard late August. Zuma denies any wrongdoing.
Prosecutors want Zuma's trial postponed until next year, arguing that a series of defense appeals, including ones challenging the legality of key raids, and the need to get evidence from Mauritius have delayed investigations.
Lawyers for Zuma and Thint argued Monday that any further delay in the case would hurt their clients' chances of a fair trial. They asked Judge Herbert Msimang to order that the case go ahead or that charges be dropped altogether.
Msimang rejected a request from prosecutor Wim Trengove for a delay until October to give the state time to respond to the defense's objections while also handling Shaik's appeal. Instead he accepted a proposal by defense lawyer Kemp J. Kemp for the court to reconvene Sept. 5.
"This matter, as you are well aware, impacts on our society," Msimang told the prosecution.
Prosecutors had launched a probe into Zuma's role when the allegations first surfaced, and announced in August 2003 that while there was evidence against him, the case was not winnable. Prosecutors revisited the case after Shaik was convicted and brought charges.
Zuma's supporters worry that if the case is delayed much longer, it could hurt Zuma's chances of being elected ANC president at the party's December 2007 conference — a key step toward leading the country when Mbeki's completes his second and final term in 2009.
Zuma, who remains the ANC's deputy president, has seen his support surge since he was acquitted of rape charges earlier this year.
Some 5,000 people gathered outside court Monday in a show of loyalty. Armed police blocked off roads surrounding the building, and a party atmosphere prevailed.
In Cape Town, 23 lawmakers and five travel agents appeared briefly before the High Court accused of defrauding Parliament of up to 24 million rands, or $3.4 million, by using vouchers intended for official travel to pay for luxury holidays, meals and car rentals. A sixth travel agent made a deal with prosecutors and will be appearing as a state witness.
Judge John Hlophe, who has himself been accused of failing to disclose monthly payments from an asset management company, agreed to a defense request to postpone the trial until Oct. 17.