Jacob Zuma seeks to challenge his incarceration after starting jail term

South African former president jailed for 15 months over refusal to appear at inquiry

 A torn African National Congress (ANC) election poster shows the face of former ANC president Jacob Zuma. File photograph: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

A torn African National Congress (ANC) election poster shows the face of former ANC president Jacob Zuma. File photograph: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

 

Former South African president Jacob Zuma, who began a jail sentence on Wednesday for ignoring a constitutional court order to appear at a corruption inquiry, is set to legally challenge his incarceration over the coming days.

Pietermaritzburg high court will decide on Friday whether it will grant an application made to it earlier this week by Zuma’s lawyers for a stay on his arrest pending the outcome of another hearing at the constitutional court next week.

South Africa’s fourth democratically elected president has applied to the constitutional court, the apex court that gave him 15 months in jail in late June after it found him guilty of contempt of court for refusing its order to give evidence at the corruption inquiry, for his sentence to be rescinded, and that application will be heard next Monday.

During an address to his supporters last Sunday, Zuma (79) said that “sending me to jail during the height of a pandemic at my age is the same as sentencing me to death”.

The forthcoming hearings are the disgraced politician’s last-ditch attempt to secure his freedom from the Estcourt Correctional Centre in KwaZulu-Natal province, where he will serve his time behind bars for being in contempt of court.

On Thursday, justice minister Ronald Lamola said that Zuma had been put into isolation in the prison’s hospital section for 14 days in line with Covid-19 regulations. He said Zuma will be eligible for parole after serving one-quarter of his sentence.

Refusal

Zuma’s downfall has come after his lawyers fought for months with the constitutional court over his refusal to return before an inquiry investigating widespread public sector corruption during his presidency between 2009 and 2018.

The inquiry led by Justice Raymond Zondo has so far fingered dozens of African National Congress (ANC) officials, government administrators and private sector businesses in tender fraud and graft, including Zuma and some of his allies in the ruling party.

However, Zuma has to date actually given evidence only once at the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector.

In 2019 he refused to adequately address questions, claiming he had no recollection of the instances being referred to. Last year he returned briefly to the inquiry, but left on the first day without permission.

In early 2021, Mr Justice Zondo successfully applied to the constitutional court to have it compel Zuma to attend the inquiry.

Zuma’s subsequent refusal to obey the court’s order has led to political and legal turmoil in recent weeks, as South Africa has never before witnessed someone who had been a democratically elected president being imprisoned.

After initially refusing to go to jail, Zuma handed himself over to police at his rural homestead in Nkandla on Wednesday night less than an hour before the legal deadline for his arrest.

Hundreds of his supporters had gathered at his home last weekend and many of them had vowed to prevent his arrest. Indeed, tensions rose significantly when ANC leaders came to the compound to try to get Zuma to comply with the courts.

But by the time the police units came to arrest him, most of his supporters had left the area, and there was no attempt by those who remained to stop the police from taking him away.

Statement

In a short statement, the Jacob Zuma Foundation said its founder had “decided to comply” with the constitutional court’s sanction.

His daughter, Dudu Zuma-Sambudla, also wrote on Twitter shortly after he was taken into custody that her father was “en route [to the jail] and he is still in high spirits”.

On Thursday morning, the ANC said it had noted the developments concerning its former leader and it reiterated its unequivocal support for South Africa’s constitution and rule of law.

The country’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, went a step further and hailed Zuma’s arrest as an important victory for the country, but maintained it was the tip of the iceberg in terms of tackling corruption.

“The fight for action against predatory politicians has only just started,” the party tweeted on Thursday.

Many South Africans see the latest developments in the Zuma drama as a hugely positive move for a country struggling to get to grips with public sector corruption, as it shows no one is above the law.

Zuma faces more legal woes in the months ahead. In late May he pleaded not guilty at Pietermaritzburg high court to graft and bribery charges linked to a multibillion-euro government arms deal in 1999, and that trial is expected to start soon.

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