The prosecution of former deputy president Jacob Zuma will be portrayed as a political trial and will be fought on that basis, both inside and outside the courtroom.
That's the word from a senior Zuma camp strategist, who did not want to be identified.
The spectacle of hundreds of Zuma supporters demonstrating their support and chanting anti-Mbeki slogans was one that would greet President Thabo Mbeki constantly, he warned. The political battle inside the African National Congress around Zuma would increasingly move into the open -- including at the party's national general council, which opened on Thursday.
About 1 000 supporters turned up at the Durban Magistrate's Court on Wednesday for Zuma's court appearance at which he faced two charges of corruption. The case faces a series of postponements before a trial date in the Durban High Court is set. In a brief interview after his court appearance, Zuma called for a speedy trial, but, realistically, the case is not likely to get under way until early next year.
In court, the defence will make this trial the battle of the arms deal, the Zuma strategist predicted, shifting the spotlight with regard to untoward interventions in the process away from Zuma and towards the role played by Mbeki and other ministers.
Mbeki has already faced questions in Parliament about meetings he is alleged to have held during the arms deal bid negotiations with representatives of Thomson CSF -- the French arms company at the centre of the bribery allegations against Zuma.
Indications are that Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, chosen by Mbeki to succeed Zuma, will also find herself as a target in the political battle. The Zuma camp regards her appointment as adding insult to the injury of Zuma's sacking.
"This is war; the gloves are off," said the strategist.
Zuma's choice of legal counsel is consistent with that stance -- and with the central role the arms deal is likely to play in the battle.
Advocate Kessie Naidu was specifically chosen for his intimidating reputation, earned nationally when he demolished witnesses as evidence leader for the Hefer commission, which investigated allegations that former national director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka had been an apartheid agent.
Although Naidu played no small role in having those allegations rejected, he would have been privy to inside information from his role as evidence leader that may be to the advantage of his current client. The same is true of his representation of Thomson CSF during the Schabir Shaik trial.
The decision by Zuma to approach former judge Willem Heath for legal assistance has similar benefits. Heath was involved in the whole genesis of the arms deal investigation when he led the special investigating unit (SIU). He received confidential information from many sources, including Patricia de Lille, the "concerned ANC MPs" who used her to raise their allegations of corruption, and businessman Richard Young, whose company CCII lost out to Thomson on one of the subcontracts to equip the navy's new corvettes.
Young told the Mail & Guardian he was extremely concerned at what he perceived as a clear conflict of interest in Heath's decision to assist Zuma. Heath has denied any conflict.
"The SIU gathered and processed reams of arms deal evidence before handing it over to the Office of the Auditor General when the president refused to give the SIU a proclamation to officially investigate the arms deal," Young noted.
"Mr Heath himself was involved in many ultra-sensitive meetings and had, and may still have, access to sensitive evidence on the arms deal, including the corvette combat suite, which overlaps both his new client's area of involvement as well as a major civil damages action by CCII Systems (Pty) Ltd, which is in progress.
"CCII Systems (Pty) Ltd had a number of meetings with both the SIU and even Mr Heath himself on a one-on-one basis and shared evidence and information with them. This situation is a clear and untenable conflict of interest."
Young said he was exploring the option of raising his concerns formally, for instance with the general council of the Bar.
Zuma will need all the help he can get as comments by state advocate Anton Steynberg after Zuma's appearance made it clear investigators will begin digging where they left off following the initial decision not to charge Zuma.
Of interest will be ongoing payments Shaik claimed in court to be making on behalf of Zuma, and other evidence indicating he was receiving or had received financial support from other sources, including businessmen Vivian Reddy and Jurgen Kogl.
MK vets challenge Mbeki on Zuma
"The ANC is a mass movement and in it you will also find those who will work hard to be seen by the world as good leaders while ignoring the basic needs of the people."
That was the message this week to President Thabo Mbeki from the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans' Association in KwaZulu-Natal, which quoted past African National Congress president Oliver Tambo as it launched a vicious assault on Mbeki for sacking Jacob Zuma.
"Today those words are visible as we are homeless, unemployed and have no medical cover and have become a laughing stock ... The only person who cared is being tried and sentenced without appearing in court."
The association warned that it would not stand idle "when our commander is being victimised".
At the party's national general council in Tshwane this week, secretary general Kgalema Motlanthe said the council can't discuss Zuma, but recommended that it mandates the national executive committee "to continue dealing with the matter and to continue interacting with Zuma".
Zuma received some solid backing this week when he appeared in court. More than 1 000 people gathered at the court and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) started a fund to help with Zuma's legal fees.
The Eastern Cape ANC council took a resolution last weekend that the national working committee must encourage Zuma to actively participate in all activities of the ANC as deputy president.
Zuma endorsed the protest action in his support when he told journalists outside court that the people were angry at the way he had been treated.
Such comments are likely to harden opinion against him in the ANC hierarchy, where some feel that through media interviews he has perpetuated the allegation that there was a political conspiracy against him.
Zuma has become a lame duck in the ANC where his role as deputy president is largely ceremonial since he stepped down from active ANC duty.
His lonely status became clear at the Freedom Charter celebrations where he did not sit on the stage with dignitaries and his presence was not acknowledged by Mbeki.
Zuma's most outspoken supporters, the ANC Youth League, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, jointly have representation of less than 200 delegates at the national conference that is being attended by more than 2 500 delegates at the University of Pretoria.