The Zuma spy tapes: all you need to know

Cape Town - As President Jacob Zuma loses his appeal to block the release of the so-called “spy tapes”, News24 charts the battle that began more than decade ago.

The tapes were at the heart of the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) decision to drop corruption charges against Zuma in 2009.

But the scandal behind the secret recordings stretches back almost 14 years.

Where did it all begin?

In October 2001, the offices of French defence company Thomson-CSF and Schabir Shaik, a businessman and close associate of then-deputy president Jacob Zuma, were raided in four countries as part of an arms deal probe.

A year later in November 2002, the Mail and Guardian revealed that the Scorpions - a former unit of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) - were investigating Zuma for allegedly attempting to secure a bribe from Thomson, since renamed Thales.

Were they guilty?

The head of the NPA, Bulelani Ngcuka, said in 2003 that though there was prima facie evidence of fraud and corruption against Zuma, he would not be prosecuted as the case wasn’t strong enough to win.

Later that year, Ngcuka was embroiled in allegations he was an apartheid spy, which led to his resignation in 2004. President Thabo Mbeki appointed the Hefer Commission of Inquiry to investigate the allegations against Ngcuka. The Commission found that the allegations had no basis.

The following year Shaik appeared in court on corruption charges in which Zuma was named. Shaik was found guilty on two counts of corruption and one count of fraud at the Durban High Court in June 2005.

Why wasn’t the matter dropped?

The trial was politically charged and implicated Zuma from the start - prompting the new NPA head, Vusi Pikoli, to open corruption charges against him.

Zuma was sacked as deputy president by then-president Thabo Mbeki in June 2005, but remained as deputy president of the ANC and immediately began mobilising support for his legal and political comeback.

In August, the Scorpions raided two of Zuma’s homes, in Johannesburg and Nkandla, including offices of his lawyers in Durban and Johannesburg.

But by September 2006, Judge Herbert Msimang had struck Zuma's case off the roll, saying he had "no choice" as the prosecution was not ready to proceed. Msimang said the State's case had "limped from one disaster to another".

Was that the end of it?

Not by a long shot. In November 2007, the South African Court of Appeal ruled that raids on Zuma’s home and office, conducted by Scorpions in 2005, were legal.  This paved the way for the reinstatement of corruption charges against Zuma.

Just before the ANC’s national conference in Limpopo in December 2007, security services secretly tapped phone conversations involving the Scorpions boss Leonard McCarthy, former NPA head Ngcuka and others outside the NPA. These "spy tapes" reportedly recorded them discussing when to charge Zuma with corruption.

Zuma was elected as the president of the ANC at the conference, but shortly afterwards the NPA filed papers outlining a case against him in the Constitutional Court. 

So this is when the legal ping-pong gets going?

Absolutely - the ball goes from being in Zuma’s court to the NPA’s, and back and forth again.

In March 2008, Zuma appealed to the Constitutional Court against the Supreme Court of Appeal ruling in favour of the NPA - his appeal was rejected in July.

In September however, Judge Chris Nicholson ruled in the Pietermaritzburg High Court that Zuma was entitled to make representations before the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) decided to re-charge him, effectively halting his prosecution.

The Supreme Court of Appeal heard the NDPP appeal and upheld it against the Nicholson ruling in January 2009 - but dismissed the application to have Nicholson's "political meddling" findings struck out.

In February 2009, the Pietermaritzburg High Court set out a timeline for the Zuma case.

Why were the charges against Zuma dropped?

Despite the legal wrangle, in a matter of months more than 700 charges against Zuma were notoriously dropped by the NPA on the eve of the 2009 national election.

The NPA, after receiving representations from Zuma's lawyers, announced in April that all charges against Zuma would be dropped.

The NDPP Moketedi Mpshe said: "I have come to the difficult conclusion that it is neither possible nor desirable for the NPA to continue with the prosecution."

Mpshe cited the spy tapes as his reason for dropping the case, which Zuma’s defence said proved there was a political conspiracy against him.

Mpshe described Scorpions boss McCarthy’s role in the tapes as “a serious abuse of process”. However, he emphasised there had been a valid case against Zuma.

Where does the DA come in?

In 2009, the Democratic Alliance (DA) went to court to have Mpshe’s decision set aside, but the application was dismissed by the North Gauteng High Court.

Following a DA appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) in 2011, the NPA was ordered to hand over the reduced record of its decision to drop charges against Zuma in 2009, including the spy tapes, to the DA.

But the NPA failed to hand over the tapes, after the State Attorney said that it was contingent on Zuma's lawyers not objecting on the grounds of confidentiality.

Zuma's lawyers did object, so the NPA did not hand over the record.

Ongoing delays

Throughout 2012 and 2013, the DA fought for the release of the tapes, facing ongoing delays from Zuma’s lawyers. The DA lodged applications in the high court to attempt to force the NPA to comply with the SCA order, but these led to further appeals from Zuma’s legal team.

On 18 August 2014 however, the president’s legal team fell apart at the SCA, conceding that they had no argument for keeping the tapes out of the hands of the DA.

Ten days later, the Supreme Court of Appeal dismissed Zuma’s application to prevent the release of the tapes.

The NPA now has five days to comply with the previous court order and release the tapes.