JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - In a historic ruling on Tuesday (June 29), South Africa’s top court handed the country’s former president Jacob Zuma a 15-month jail term for “egregious” 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.
“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,” she added, making reference to Zuma’s “egregious affront on judicial integrity, the rule of law and the Constitution”.
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 forced him out.
Before he left office, he responded to mounting pressure and set up an investigative commission, headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.
The panel has encountered years of resistance from Zuma. He testified only once, in July 2019, before staging a walkout days later and accusing Mr 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 Mr Zondo asked the Constitutional Court to intervene for contempt.
“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,” judge Khampepe said.
“The majority judgement orders an unsuspended sentence of imprisonment for a period (of 15 months),” she said.
The judge ordered Zuma to hand himself over to the police in Johannesburg or in Nkandla, a rural town in south-eastern Kwa-Zulu Natal province where he has a home, within five calendar days.
In the event that Zuma fails to hand himself over, the minister of police and the national police commissioner must take all necessary steps to ensure he begins serving his sentence.
Zuma did not immediately react to the judgement, but a loyal ally Carl Niehaus tweeted that the imprisonment “is totally unacceptable. In fact it is an utter outrage!”
Analysts say he will not avoid jail.
“There is no appeal against a decision of the Constitutional Court,” Mr Lawson Naidoo, head of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution said.
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.
Corruption Watch, a non-profit organisation, described the judgement as “momentous” and “historical”.
“For the first time in South Africa, we are seeing a former head of state held directly accountable by way of a prison sentence,” said Corruption Watch’s legal officer Karam Singh.
But the ruling will spell disaster for the ANC and “aggravate the factional differences” leading up to the October local government votes, said WITS university lecturer Susan Booysen.
Mr Aleix Montana of the risk analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft said the ruling will boost the fight against graft.
It was “an important milestone for South Africa’s judicial independence and its fight against corruption,” the analyst said.
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 US$5 billion. At the time of the purchase, Zuma was president Thabo Mbeki’s deputy.