The much-postponed corruption trial of South Africa’s ex-president Jacob Zuma ran into fresh legal delays and health problems on Monday as he launched a new procedural battle on the eve of his 80th birthday.

Zuma faces 16 counts of fraud, graft and racketeering over the purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and equipment while he was vice president in the 1990s.

The closely-followed trial started in May 2021 after repeated postponements as Zuma’s legal team battled to have the charges dropped.

It had been expected to resume on Monday in the southeastern city of Pietermaritzburg.

But Zuma’s attorney said his defendant was unable to attend on health grounds, and then successfully filed a request for a further postponement.

“There was a medical emergency which took place in the past few hours,” his lawyer Dali Mpofu announced in court, giving no further details.

His spokesman later said that Zuma had been admitted to hospital for medical tests.

Zuma’s defence asked the High Court to postpone the case to let him exhaust his options of appeal in a complaint against the lead prosecutor, Billy Downer.

In October, Zuma asked for Downer to be dropped from the case, accusing him of bias. He contended Downer leaked confidential documents to the media.

But the Supreme Court of Appeal last month ruled against him, saying the petition had “no reasonable prospect of success.”

Downer argued in court on Monday that the application for another postponement was another “delaying tactic.”

It “erodes the public’s confidence in the system of justice because it’s yet another postponement in the long-running series of postponements,” he warned.

Mpofu denied this, saying Zuma “has consistently done everything he can for this trial to proceed.”

Judge Piet Koen granted a postponement to May 17 to let the appeal process “take its due course.”

But, he warned, “the future progress of the trial must be managed properly.”

– Tainted image –

Zuma spokesman Mzwanele Manyi welcomed Koen’s decision as the “upholding of the rule of law.”

“We are very happy that finally the laws of this country are being applied,” Manyi said, adding that Zuma was “not being done any favour, because he is not well”.

Details of his illness have not been revealed

Zuma was president from 2009 until 2018, when the ruling African National Congress (ANC) forced him out as graft scandals besetting his government brewed into a political storm.

Last year he was given a 15-month jail term for contempt of court after refusing to testify before a panel probing financial sleaze and cronyism under his presidency.

His jailing sparked riots that descended into looting and left more than 350 dead. It was the worst violence in South Africa since the advent of democracy in 1994.

He was released on health grounds two months into the term. While he was in prison, he was taken to hospital for surgery to treat an undisclosed ailment.

The French defence giant Thales, the other defendant in the trial, has been charged with corruption and money laundering. Both it and Zuma deny any wrongdoing.

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© Agence France-Presse