South Africa's sacked deputy president Jacob Zuma faced trial yesterday in a powder keg corruption case which may end his career and dash his hopes of one day leading Africa's biggest economy.
Zuma's lawyers were due to oppose the state's move to defer until next year the trial over a multibillion-dollar 1999 government arms deal in which he is accused of taking money from a local subsidiary of French arms firm Thales.
The popular Zulu politician and veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, who was sacked by President Thabo Mbeki last year after his financial adviser Schabir Shaik was sentenced to 15 years in jail, faces two graft charges.
Zuma, 64, is accused of complicity in accepting a bribe through Shaik to protect the Thales subsidiary from a subsequent state investigation into alleged irregularities.
A source in Zuma's camp said that the defense would fight state prosecutors' attempts to defer the trial until February.
"We will launch an application to say the trial should proceed at once or the charges should be dropped at once," the source said.
At the high court in the eastern city of Pietermaritzburg, Zuma's lawyers were to argue for the case to be set aside on the grounds of improper evidence gathering.
It claims that raids conducted by the National Prosecuting Authority on Zuma's homes, in which allegedly incriminating evidence was found, were illegal.
The state is reportedly trying to win more time to build its case, since it has been unable so far to access crucial evidence from Mauritius which could prove that Zuma had solicited a bribe and met with an official from the French firm.
Once considered a shoe-in for the presidency when Mbeki's second and final term expires, Zuma's fortunes plummeted with the graft charges, which were then followed by a sensational rape accusation by an HIV-positive woman. Although Zuma was in May acquitted of raping the young AIDS activist, his image took a beating when he admitted to having consensual sex with her.
Armed police blocked off roads surrounding the court yesterday, where thousands of Zuma supporters held an overnight vigil.
About 500 remained yesterday morning, some wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Zuma's image and singing an old anti-apartheid song that has become his anthem: "Bring Me My Machine Gun." The turnout was far less than the tens of thousands promised by organizers.