Fast cars in exchange for fast jets, elite government officials on the take, and a sprawling luxury home funded by ill-gotten gains.

Those are some of the allegation under the spotlight when South African former president Jacob Zuma appears by video link at the KwaZulu Natal high court on Monday.

It will be Mr Zuma’s first appearance since his imprisonment on unrelated contempt of court charges last Thursday triggered riots that have brought Kwa ZuluNatal to the brink of humanitarian crisis and South Africa’s ruling party to the brink of schism. 

The looting and arson is now mostly over. But as soldiers fan out across Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal to help keep the fragile peace, and civilians pick up the pieces of their shattered communities, attention is turning to the dramatic political fall out.

The most immediate is an unsealable split in the African National Congress that is likely to spell the end of Nelson Mandela’s Party as we have known it for 27 years.

"The ANC as we know it will never get 50 percent [of the vote] again.  So the (Zuma) insurrection failed and the ANC camp behind Ramaphosa has the momentum,” said professor William Gumede, an associate professor from the School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, reflecting on the chaos.

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa visited areas of KwaZulu Natal affected by rioting on Saturday

Credit: AP

And the court case in Pietermaritzburg, a city shattered by the rioting, is a lightning rod for Mr Zuma’s supporters and critics.  

Mr Zuma is facing 16 charges of fraud, corruption, racketeering and money-laundering. He could be sentenced to 25 years in jail if convicted.

He is accused of accepting more than 700 bribes in a ten-year period before he became president in 2009 – including a 500,000 rand ($34,000) annual retainer from Thales, a French defence firm, when he was deputy president.

That money, prosecutors allege, was in exchange for political influence and protecting the French arms giant from close scrutiny of its role in a controversial multi-billion dollar arms deal signed in 1999.

Mr Zuma pleaded not guilty when the trial opened last month. Allies say the charges are politically motivated.  

A soldier tries to restrain people from attacking men accused of looting in the township of Alexandra, near Johannesburg. More than 25,000 troops have been deployed to restore order

Thales, which is a co-accused in the case, has denied knowledge of any wrong doing. It told the Telegraph: “Thales South Africa has prepared for the trial and is confident in the outcome.The company firmly denies the accusations that are being made against it.”

Legally, recent events on the streets make no difference to the case. But politically, the chaos has dramatically raised the stakes.

Last week’s mayhem began almost immediately after Mr Zuma began a 15 month jail term for refusing to testify in front of the State Capture Commission of inquiry chaired by the deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, which is investigating separate allegations of graft under his 2009-2018 presidency

There are widespread suspicions that allies of Mr Zuma orchestrated the violence to force his release from jail and make the country ungovernable for the rival ANC faction around president Cyril Ramaphosa.

Mr Zuma’s allies vigorously deny such a conspiracy. "President Zuma has has done everything to ensure there was peace. He is a man of peace and does not want violence," said Mzwanele Manyi, a spokesman for the Jacob Zuma Foundation

Nonetheless, the smooth running of the trial will now be seen as test of whether South Africa’s judicial system will be brow-beaten by  flagrant intimidation.  

The case against Mr Zuma and Thales represents a small part of the alleged corruption surrounding South Africa’s biggest purchase of arms.

Smoke rises from a burning building in Durban during the riots last week

The 1999 Strategic Defence Package saw orders for fighter jets, helicopters,  warships  and submarines being placed with British, German, Italian, Spanish and French arms companies at a total cost of $4.8 billion US dollars.

It was an eye watering sum for a country with no immediate external security threat, and allegations quickly emerged that the price had been inflated by systematic bribery. But few people have ever been convicted.

In 2003 Tony Yengeni, the ANC’s former chief whip, was sentenced to four years in jail for accepting a discount on a Mercedes car from the South African branch of Daimler Benz at the time it was competing to supply jets and helicopters. Its bid was ultimately unsuccessful.

In 2005  Schabir Shaik, at the time Mr Zuma’s financial adviser, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for accepting a bribes from Thomson-CSF, now Thales.

Then-president Thabo Mbeki sacked Mr Zuma as deputy state president after Shaik’s conviction, but charges against Mr Zuma himself were dropped several times until they were finally reinstated in 2018.

“South Africa didn’t need that arms deal.  We only needed more equipment for a larger army, and that stuff could be made in South Africa,” said Bantu Holomisa, an MP and the leader of the United Democratic Movement party.

“Apart from all the bribes, we wasted money,  that was the serious start of corruption in South Africa," he added.