The former South African president's latest hearing is being held virtually over fears of fresh protests after last week's unrest over his jail term left more than 200 dead.

A South African soldier stands guard outside of the High Court, where the graft trial of South African ex-president Jacob Zuma resumed, in the southeastern city of Pietermaritzburg, on July 19, 2021.
A South African soldier stands guard outside of the High Court, where the graft trial of South African ex-president Jacob Zuma resumed, in the southeastern city of Pietermaritzburg, on July 19, 2021. (AFP)

Jacob Zuma's long-running corruption trial has resumed, with the ex-president appearing virtually from jail in a bid to avert more of the violence that swept South Africa after he was imprisoned in a separate case.

Zuma's lawyers are seeking to have the case postponed by up to three weeks because of the unrest and the pandemic to allow time for the trial to resume physically in court.

Judge Piet Koen adjourned the case and said he would make a ruling on the arguments made by Zuma's legal team on Tuesday at 0800 GMT.

Security was tight around the High Court in the southeastern city of Pietermaritzburg, capital of Zuma's home region of KwaZulu-Natal, where loyalists have previously gathered, but barely any supporters turned out on Monday.

READ MORE: South Africa deploys troops to quell riots as death toll ticks up

There are fears that Zuma's latest court appearance could trigger fresh protests. 

Last week's unrest left more than 200 people dead, after protests that began in the former president's home province of KwaZulu-Natal escalated into looting, arson and riots, spreading to Gauteng province. 

Crowds clashed with police and ransacked or set ablaze shopping malls in an outpouring of general anger over the inequality that persists 27 years after the end of apartheid and poverty exacerbated by Covid-19 lockdowns.

READ MORE: Calm restored to most affected areas in South Africa after 'week from hell'

The charges

Zuma, 79, faces 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering related to the purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and military gear from five European arms firms in 1999 when he was deputy president.

He is accused of taking bribes from one of the firms, French defence giant Thales, which has been charged with corruption and money laundering.

The trial started in May after numerous postponements and delays. 

Zuma, 79, who appeared in person for the opening, proclaimed his innocence. Thales also pleaded not guilty.

Monday's hearing will focus on an application by Zuma's legal team for chief prosecutor Billy Downer to recuse himself from the case over claims he leaked information to the media.

The National Prosecuting Authority said it would "vigorously" oppose the application.

On June 29, Zuma was separately found guilty of contempt of South Africa's top court and sentenced to 15 months in jail for failing to appear before a judicial panel probing his time as president. 

His jailing a week later triggered some of the worst violence in South Africa in years. Zuma is seeking to overturn the sentence.

Online format may not prevent further protests

Despite the digital staging of the hearing, Zuma supporters are likely to gather in front of the Pietermaritzburg High Court as they have for past hearings.

"People will be watching the behaviour of judges," Sipho Seepe, a fellow of the University of Zululand in KwaZulu-Natal, told AFP news agency.

"If they feel justice is not done, they will protest.”

Armed police and soldiers, deployed to quell recent riots, secured the area around the court, the agency reported, as a military vehicle, helicopter and armoured police vehicles were deployed at the scene. 

Zuma's lawyers claim the virtual format is unconstitutional and have applied for the trial to be adjourned.

His foundation confirmed on Twitter late on Sunday that the ex-president would attend Monday's hearing virtually "for the postponement application of his trial".

Zuma and his backers have repeatedly dismissed the scrutiny of the ex-president's conduct as politically motivated and warned his jailing would spark unrest.

But they deny being behind the recent turmoil.

Meanwhile, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Friday that the violence of the past week was planned.

"It is quite clear that all these incidents of unrest and looting were instigated, there were people who planned it and coordinated it," Ramaphosa said.

READ MORE: South Africa's president visits epicentre of unrest, says it was 'planned'

Source: TRTWorld and agencies