Former South African president Jacob Zuma granted appeal to jail sentence
Jacob Zuma, the former president of South Africa, appeared on Saturday to have won a reprieve from imminent imprisonment on contempt of court charges after the country’s most senior judges agreed to hear his challenge to a 15-month jail sentence awarded last week.
Police were ordered to arrest the 79-year-old by the supreme court if he did not surrender to authorities by Sunday after he failed to appear before a corruption inquiry earlier this year.
Zuma was ousted as president amid multiple graft scandals in 2018 after nine years in power and has consistently refused to cooperate with judges investigating wrongdoing during his rule.
In recent days, the veteran politician has sought to rally political support, particularly in his stronghold of KwaZulu-Natal province where he appeared briefly in public on Saturday, but his efforts to spark any broader protests at his impending arrest have so far failed.
A small crowd gathered outside Zuma’s homestead of Nkandla. Supporters included about two dozen women who said they had travelled more than 300km overnight from the neighbouring Eastern Cape province.
“We support Zuma and we want to know what is going to happen with him, which is why we are here,” 43-year-old Cecilia Nongce said, wearing a traditional Nguni blue-and-red blanket to ward off the cold.
“We love Nxamalala ,” she said in Zulu, referring to Zuma by his traditional clan name, adding that they hoped he would come out to speak to them.
A group of other supporters arrived in two mini-buses waving ANC flags and wearing white T-shirts with the inscription ‘wenzeni uZuma’, Zulu for “What has Zuma done?”
Analysts in South Africa were surprised by the supreme court’s decision to consider the former president’s challenge to its own decision.
“If Zuma goes to prison, we can say we have the rule of law in South Africa. If he doesn’t, then we don’t. There is no new evidence, so this means the system is being bent to fit the politics and people everywhere will be very disappointed by that,” said Ralph Mathekga, an author and political commentator.
In its judgment last week, the South African supreme court noted that the former president had “repeatedly reiterated that he would rather be imprisoned than to cooperate “with the corruption inquiry”.
Zuma then submitted a 30-page statement, accusing judges of “exasperation” and suggesting that the supreme court “reassess whether it has acted within the constitution”.
The statement also said that Zuma’s health would be at risk in prison because he would not be able to receive the care that he needs and might catch Covid-19.
The contempt of court charges related to Zuma’s consistent failure to appear at the corruption inquiry led by South Africa’s deputy chief justice, Raymond Zondo, in February.
Scores of witnesses have described what appears to have been widespread corruption and misadministration under Zuma’s rule, but the former president has testified only once, in July 2019, before staging a walkout days later. He denies all wrongdoing.
In February, Zondo said he would seek an order from the constitutional court to force Zuma to testify or go to prison because otherwise “the message … sent out is that people can ignore or disregard summons and orders of courts with impunity …[and] there will be very little that will be left of our democracy.”
Zuma has accused Zondo of being biased and saying that allegations against him were formulated by various actors involving overseas intelligence agencies.
Most of the alleged corruption under investigation by the commission involves three brothers from a wealthy Indian business family, the Guptas, who won lucrative government contracts and were allegedly even able to choose cabinet ministers.
South African media have been supportive of the Constitutional court.
“His diehard fans trumpet his contribution to ….the transition to a successful democracy. They are absolutely correct; Zuma was a patriot – and as a patriot he should submit himself to the laws and institutions of this country,” said the Independent online news website.
Mathekga said most South Africans wanted to see the rule of law upheld. “If the constitutional [supreme] court is dithering what does it say about our institutions?” he said.
Zuma’s successor as president, Cyril Ramaphosa, a labour activist turned wealthy tycoon, has taken steps to stamp out corruption. Ramaphosa took over as South Africa’s president after a bitter internal battle within the ANC and amid public outrage over allegations of mismanagement and systemic corruption.
Anger has been fuelled by a series of scandals involving huge sums corruptly earned on government contracts for emergency supplies to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and grants to support the most needy.
In the past few days, new Covid restrictions have been introduced in an attempt to stem a sharp rise in cases driven by the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant, weak countermeasures and public fatigue with existing restrictions.
Zuma is separately facing 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering relating to a 1999 arms deal, to which he has pleaded not guilty.