South Africa faces political crisis over corruption trial

SOUTH Africa was teetering last night on the brink of its biggest political crisis since the end of apartheid, when a judge said there was "overwhelming" evidence of a corrupt relationship between a businessman and the man tipped to become the next president.

The judge, Hillary Squires, unexpectedly adjourned his judgment without reaching a verdict in the trial of the businessman, Schabir Shaik, who is accused of a corrupt relationship with the vice-president, Jacob Zuma.

However, by the time he called a halt to proceedings - because his voice was giving way reading the 165-page judgment - Mr Squires had thrown enough grenades to guarantee prolonged problems for the ruling African National Congress.

Shaik complained to police officers as he left the Durban high court that the judge was "crucifying" him by extending his judgment to a third day, at the end of an eight-month trial that has monumental political implications for South Africa.

Mr Squires was summing up the mountain of trial evidence about the first of the three charges against Shaik - that he bribed Mr Zuma to the tune of at least 110,000 in 238 separate payments to secure the vice-president’s support for business enterprises.

The name of Mr Zuma, who is not charged in the trial, appeared as frequently as that of Shaik in the first 122 pages of the judgment.

Mr Squires accused Shaik of calculated deception, evasion, equivocation and inconsistency while giving evidence.

And in a devastating comment that gives a huge clue about his likely final verdict, the judge said: "The case on count one is not just convincing in detail, but it is really overwhelming."

That statement, combined with the unexpected delay in reaching the verdict, unleashed an immediate national debate among a populace which has been watching the judgment live on television - the first time in South Africa that TV cameras have been allowed into a courtroom in session.

When Mr Squires resumes his judgment today in the packed courtroom behind the Victorian facade of Durban’s high court, he will turn to the most sensational allegation against Shaik and, by implication, Mr Zuma.

The charge is that, as part of South Africa’s recent 5.2 billion international arms deal, Shaik procured for the vice-president a 41,000 illegal annual retainer from the French arms and electronics giant Thomson CSF - which is part-owned by the French government and has since been renamed Thales.

In return, said the state prosecutor, Mr Zuma agreed to secure Thomson CSF’s interests in the cabinet and to make sure, as leader of parliamentary business, that MPs launched no awkward inquiries into the programme to refurbish South Africa’s armed forces, whose equipment had become outdated as a result of apartheid-era sanctions.

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