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Legal team's 11th hour withdrawal 'fortuitous' for Zuma - trial delay expected even though NPA is ready

21 April 2021 - 14:51 By Tania Broughton
Former president Jacob Zuma's legal team filed a notice of withdrawal in the Pietermaritzburg high court on Wednesday. File photo.
Former president Jacob Zuma's legal team filed a notice of withdrawal in the Pietermaritzburg high court on Wednesday. File photo.
Image: Thuli Dlamini

Jacob Zuma's legal team's formal notice of withdrawal of their services in his corruption trial in the Pietermaritzburg high court on Wednesday could be “fortuitous” for the former president. 

Eric Mabuza filed the notice as Zuma’s attorney of record but did not provide reasons for the withdrawal ahead of the trial which was scheduled to start on May 17.

Mabuza didn't respond to queries from TimesLIVE.

National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Sipho Ngwema confirmed “receipt of correspondence from Mabuza Attorneys”.

“Suffice to say, the state remains ready to proceed with the trial from May 17 2021,” he added.

However, the withdrawal has immediate implications for the trial.

Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the Constitution, said in light of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) judgment that closed the taps on state funding for Zuma's criminal trial “it is not surprising that his attorneys have withdrawn”. 

“It is also rather fortuitous for Mr Zuma that it comes at this time. Because it may provide him with grounds to seek a delay in the trial.

He would have to convince a court that additional time is necessary and what a reasonable delay might constitute.”

Naidoo said if necessary, he must apply for legal aid “and he will be means tested to determine if he qualifies for it”.

Advocate Paul Jorgensen told TimesLIVE the “most innocent explanation” was insufficient funds.

“A second reason, could be a conflict within the legal team/or between his attorney and him in respect of the manner in which to handle the trial.

“At its most suspect, it is an orchestrated move on the part of Zuma to place his attorneys in a position where they perceive they have to ethically withdraw. The benefit to Zuma is that his trial is delayed,” Jorgensen said.

He said it was probable that the court would not just accept the withdrawal and attorneys had to ask for permission to do so.

“I expect the court will hold a full inquiry. While there is attorney/client privilege, Mabuza will have to disclose the nature of the issue leading to the request to withdraw.”

He said in the circumstances, he could not see the court forcing Zuma to continue without legal representation because of the magnitude of the matter. 

With regards to Thales, he said it could bring an application to have the matter against it struck from the roll, rather than being adjourned in order for Zuma to hire new lawyers, because of undue delays which were not of its doing.

Last week, the SCA dismissed Zuma's bid to overturn a previous ruling by the Gauteng high court that he was not entitled to state funding and he had to pay back taxpayers' money already spent, more than R15m.

Mabuza Inc replaced Michael Hulley and Associates as his attorneys of record in April last year. At that time, Mabuza said he was not doing the job for free and said his appointment would not delay the trial.

In February this year, it was set down to begin on May 17 in the Pietermaritzburg high court.