Jacob Zuma has made a bid to throw out longstanding charges of corruption relating to a suspect 1990s arms deal.
Lawyers for South Africa’s former president, who was forced out of office and replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa last year, argued before the Pietermaritzburg high court on Monday to stop the allegations going to trial.
Prosecutors revived the once-dormant case against Mr Zuma after he lost a power struggle with Mr Ramaphosa for control of the ruling African National Congress.
Mr Ramaphosa, a trade unionist turned tycoon, led the ANC to victory in national elections this month, but with its lowest majority since the party first gained power a quarter of a century ago.
Voter frustration with a decade of misrule under Mr Zuma, including graft and economic stagnation, led to the smaller majority.
Mr Ramaphosa has pledged to root out corruption in the ANC and many see the prosecution against his predecessor as a litmus test. Allies of Mr Zuma still hold powerful positions in the party and have clashed with Mr Ramaphosa’s backers.
On Monday the court set a date for the trial to begin in October, pending a judgment on Mr Zuma’s application to halt the case.
Mr Zuma’s lawyer told the court that Mr Zuma was being subjected to “mob justice” by the prosecution. “This case is an intersection of law and politics,” he said.
The former president has called the charges “politically motivated.” He has always denied the claims that he took bribes in a 1999 arms deal that involved BAE Systems, Sweden’s Saab and Thales, the French group.
The deal led to the first big graft scandal to shake the ANC after it took power in 1994.
The case against Mr Zuma groups 783 counts of corruption, fraud, money-laundering and other charges.
Mr Zuma first faced the charges in 2005. But when he became president in 2009, prosecutors said the charges were politically motivated and dropped them. South Africa’s highest court overturned that decision in 2017.
Opposition parties and civil society groups have long accused Mr Zuma of trying to bog down the case, and of using powers of appointment when he was state president to delay it further.
Last year Mr Ramaphosa replaced Mr Zuma’s pick for head of the national prosecuting authority, which analysts said was part of a process of rebuilding hollowed-out institutions.
Last week Mr Ramaphosa also appointed a veteran lawyer to head a unit in the national prosecuting authority dedicated to pursuing high-level corruption in the state.
The unit will have a mandate to investigate separate allegations that private interests in effect took over government institutions under Mr Zuma, a scandal termed “state capture”.
As Mr Zuma entered the courtroom on Monday, his supporters were notably few in number compared with previous appearances where backers held rallies outside the courthouse.
Thales, Mr Zuma’s co-accused in the arms deal prosecution, has argued that it cannot obtain a fair trial in the case.