Former president Jacob Zuma has again turned his sights on the judiciary ahead of his corruption trial, claiming that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has been holding secret discussions with KwaZulu-Natal judge president Achmat Jappie.
Zuma’s lawyer, Eric Mabuza, has threatened action against Jappie and prosecutor Advocate Billy Downer SC over correspondence between the two about the trial date for the corruption case — which will sit briefly on June 23 — and the addition of more charges to the indictment.
Although the prosecuting authority has described the correspondence as routine and part of the usual process of preparing for court, Zuma’s team says it believes otherwise. They question why Downer wrote to Jappie and not KwaZulu-Natal deputy judge president Mjabuliseni Madondo, who is on the bench for the trial, and with whom both the defence and the state had previously been corresponding.
Mabuza has also objected to the state’s suggestion that Zuma’s trial on charges of accepting bribes from French arms dealer Thales and his former financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, begin in February. Zuma, who is standing trial along with Thales, prefers a trial date of October, according to Mabuza.
In his letter, Mabuza, who was appointed as Zuma’s new lawyer in April, said that they had not been copied in any of the correspondence between Downer and Jappie and were not privy to the reasons why Downer had corresponded with him and not Madondo.
Mabuza said he and his legal team had not held ex parte discussions with either Madondo or Jappie as “we would consider it inappropriate to do so unless it was with consent or knowledge of all the parties involved”.
“Having consulted with our client, we are instructed to register his and our concern that such ex parte and indeed parallel communications were apparently initiated by the honourable judge president,” Mabuza said.
Mabuza said they did not suggest that Jappie’s actions were inappropriate, but objected to the discussions about the case, which included a possible amendment of the indictment by the state.
“Our client is seriously concerned about why the honourable judge president has seen it fit to run a separate parallel process which excluded him and his legal representatives,” Mabuza said.
Mabuza said it was of “grave concern” that Downer and Jappie had discussed the amendments to the indictment, which include the addition of new charges discovered in the forensic report by auditors KPMG relating to further payments from the Nkobi group.
Mabuza said the discussions implied a “lobbying exercise” by the state in an attempt to secure a postponement until 2021.
He added that it was difficult not to believe that his exclusion from the discussions between Downer and Jappie “was not deliberate and initiated to gain some strategic advantage over the accused”.
Zuma, he said, was suspicious about the discussions and would be left with the impression that there was an attempt to manipulate the composition of the bench, unless he was given a “satisfactory” explanation.
“Given the history of this matter and how he believes he has been persecuted by the system, he remains apprehensive and concerned by what appears to be secret and inappropriate discussions,” Mabuza said.
Should Zuma not be satisfied by the explanation and any “proposed remedial measures”, he would consider escalating the matter to the Judicial Services Commission, the office of the chief justice and the NPA integrity division.
Mabuza said Zuma would not accept a postponement of the trial until 2021.
KwaZulu-Natal director of public prosecutions, Advocate Elaine Zungu, said that the correspondence “was conducted in the normal course”’ of business. “Any issues arising will be dealt with during proceedings, the merits of which are not discussed as they are sub judice,” she said.
At the time of writing no complaint had been laid by Zuma’s legal team.