AFP, June 29, 2021 — In a historic ruling, South Africa’s top court on Tuesday handed the country’s former president, Jacob Zuma, a 15-month jail term for contempt of court after he refused to appear before graft investigators.
Zuma was told to turn himself in within five days, failing which police will be ordered to arrest him and take him to jail.
The ruling sets a precedent for South Africa — and a benchmark for the continent — by jailing a former head of state for failing to respond to a corruption probe.
“It is declared that Mr. Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma is guilty of the crime of contempt of court,” Constitutional Court judge Sisi Khampepe said.
“No person is above the law.”
Zuma, 79, is accused of enabling the plunder of state coffers during his nearly nine-year stay in office, which ended calamitously in February 2018 when the ruling African National Congress (ANC) forced him out.
Before he left office, he responded to mounting pressure by setting up an investigative commission, headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.
The panel has encountered years of resistance from Zuma.
He only testified once, in July 2019, before staging a walkout days later and accusing Zondo of bias.
He then ignored several invitations to reappear, including a Constitutional Court order in January, in some cases citing medical reasons and preparations for another corruption trial.
He presented himself again briefly in November but left before questioning, and an exasperated Zondo asked the Constitutional Court to intervene for contempt.
“This kind of recalcitrance and defiance is unlawful and will be punished,” Khampepe said.
“I am left with no option but to commit Mr Zuma to imprisonment, with the hope that doing so sends an unequivocal message… the rule of law and the administration of justice prevails.”
She said Zuma, as a former head of state, was aware of the law yet placed himself “in blatant violation” of a court order.
“The majority judgement orders an unsuspended sentence of imprisonment for a period (of 15 months),” she declared.
She ordered Zuma to hand himself over to the police in Johannesburg or in Nkandla, a rural town in southeastern Kwa-Zulu Natal province where he has a home, within five calendar days.
If “Mr Zuma does not submit himself… the minister of police… must within three calendar days of the expiry stipulated of the period… take all steps that are necessary and permissible in law to make sure that Mr Zuma is delivered to a correctional centre in order to commence the sentence,” said the judge.
Most of the graft investigated by the commission involve three brothers from a wealthy Indian business family, the Guptas, who won lucrative government contracts and were allegedly even able to choose cabinet ministers.
Zuma is separately facing 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering relating to a 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and military gear from five European arms firms for 30 billion rand, then the equivalent of nearly $5 billion.
At the time of the purchase, Zuma was president Thabo Mbeki’s deputy.
He is accused of accepting bribes totalling four million rand from one of the firms, French defence giant Thales.