Jacob Zuma sentenced to prison by South African court
JOHANNESBURG – South Africa’s highest court on Tuesday ordered the jail of Jacob Zuma, the former South African president, for 15 months for contempt, after challenging an order to appear in a corruption inquiry examining the scandals breathtaking financials that marred his tenure as the country’s leader from 2009 to 2018.
The decision to detain Mr. Zuma, a comrade of Nelson Mandela and one of the dominant figures of the ruling African National Congress since the end of apartheid in 1994, was a notable development in the legacy of the corruption that darkened his years in power. Mr. Zuma was not in court on Tuesday and he was not immediately taken into custody.
The Constitutional Court’s decision to arrest Mr. Zuma came five months after the same body ordered him to appear before the corruption investigation, headed by Vice-President Raymond Zondo.
But Mr. Zuma brazenly defied the court. Not only did he not show up to testify before the inquest, but he also ignored the High Court contempt process, even refusing to mount a defense.
The call to jail Mr Zuma for his defiance comes at a time when many tired South Africans appear to have rallied behind the efforts of current President Cyril Ramaphosa to root out corruption in government and party ANC.
Looting of state-owned enterprises by government officials has taken a heavy toll on the lives of ordinary citizens, due to problems such as poor service delivery, frequent power cuts and water shortages. Frustrated South Africans frequently protest.
Mr. Zuma, 79, has in many ways become the most powerful representation of lost government leadership.
In a bid to regain public trust, current President Ramaphosa has in recent months attacked some of his own party figures – including the Minister of Health, amid the pandemic, and the secretary general of the ANC, the third most powerful member of the party – who have been accused of corruption, forcing them to step down from their roles in the ANC as they face charges.
It was a landmark decision that many South Africans said was long overdue. But it also caused a split within the party. Although Mr. Ramaphosa appears to have the support of a majority of the ANC, there remains a strong core of Zuma followers.
Tuesday’s decision was announced in a sparsely populated Johannesburg courtroom, with limited attendance due to the rise in coronavirus infections in the country. Judge Sisi Khampepe sat on a curved dais in front of a South African flag and a red brick wall as a backdrop, methodically reading the court’s decision. She spent several minutes reviewing the history of the case before announcing Mr. Zuma’s fate.
Mr. Zuma himself began the investigation into the corruption he has since avoided. Launched in 2018, it came after a report detailing the extent of corruption in state-owned enterprises and ministries during his administration. In its far-reaching mandate, the commission interviewed more than 250 witnesses.
Mr. Zuma is the first to refuse to testify. He argued that he was not legally obliged to do so, claiming that Judge Zondo harbored a personal vendetta against him. The judge dismissed the argument as being without merit.
Beyond the commission’s investigation, Zuma faces other serious legal issues related to corruption allegations.
He is being prosecuted for racketeering, corruption, fraud and money laundering after being accused of accepting bribes from a French arms manufacturer when he was vice-president in 1999. This trial was due to take place ‘open earlier this year, but the deal has been delayed. Many times. More recently, Mr. Zuma’s legal team sought to have the lead prosecutor removed, alleging he was biased. The case was postponed until July.
Although Mr. Zuma is a polarizing figure in South Africa, he retains considerable support, increasing the risk of protests from sympathizers and supporters.
Mr Ramaphosa, Mr Zuma’s former deputy, won the leadership of the ANC in 2017 after a deadly internal battle. Soon after, he forced Mr. Zuma to resign from his post as president, a humiliating defeat that Mr. Zuma has not forgiven.
Mr Ramaphosa’s vow to root out corruption and favoritism within the ANC met with strong resistance from a rival faction within the party. The ANC has dominated South African politics since the end of the apartheid era.
Critics of Zuma feared his refusal to testify would seriously undermine the corruption investigation and further alienate South Africans weary of what they see as impunity and lack of accountability from senior politicians of the ANC.