Zuma, who was forced to resign by the ruling ANC party last year, has been charged with 16 counts of fraud, racketeering and money laundering relating to the weapons deal dating back to before he took office in 2009.

Lawyers and members of the audience attend the trial of former South African President Jacob Zuma in the High Court in Pietermaritzburg, on May 20, 2019.
Lawyers and members of the audience attend the trial of former South African President Jacob Zuma in the High Court in Pietermaritzburg, on May 20, 2019. (AFP)

Lawyers for former South African president Jacob Zuma argued in court on Monday that he could not expect a fair trial, as they fought to have corruption charges against him over a multi-million-dollar arms deal dropped.

Zuma, 77, is accused of taking bribes from French defence company Thales during his time as a provincial economy minister and later as deputy president of the African National Congress (ANC) in the 1990s.

He allegedly pocketed around four million rand ($280,000, 250,000 euros) from 783 payments handled by Schabir Shaik, a businessman who acted as his financial adviser.

The charges were first brought against Zuma in 2005 but dropped by prosecutors in 2009, before being reinstated in 2016. 

Zuma's legal counsel Muzi Sikhakhane said in his opening statement that the case was at the "intersection of law and politics" and that Zuma faced "mob justice" and "lynching" due to prejudice against him.

Sikhakhane argued at Pietermartizburg high court that Zuma's constitutional right to a prompt trial "had been compromised or violated to the point where we could say 'a fair trial can never happen'."

He accused prosecutors of being "over-zealous" and asked, "Does he get stripped of human dignity because he is Mr Zuma? Must he be dealt with with less humanity?"

Both Zuma and Thales deny any wrongdoing and have applied to the court for a permanent stay of prosecution.

'Politics is not good'

"Bearing in mind the very long delay of this procedure — through no fault of Thales at all — together with a range of factors beyond its control, Thales believes it cannot obtain a fair trial," Thales said in a press statement.

"Thales reiterates that it has no knowledge of any transgressions having been committed by any of its employees."

Outside the court, a small number of Zuma's supporters held a rally for the former president.

"Politics is not good. Some people, they don't like Zuma — that's why they took him to court," Vukhani Khumalo told AFP, saying court proceedings against him should be scrapped.

Zuma sat in court wearing a suit and red tie and looking occasionally at papers in front of him.

A separate judicial enquiry into alleged state corruption during Zuma's time as president is hearing evidence in Johannesburg.

His successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa, who held onto power when the ANC won national elections earlier this month, has vowed to root out corruption in the government and the party.

Zuma, who is thought to have little personal wealth, was ordered by a court last year to pay back state funds and cover his own costs over the legal case, leaving him with large legal bills.

After previous court appearances, Zuma has given rousing speeches outside the court, singing and dancing and proclaiming his innocence.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies