Former South African president Jacob Zuma has been sentenced to 15 months in jail by the country’s highest court after it found him guilty of contempt of court for refusing its order to give evidence at a corruption inquiry.
Handing down its majority judgment on Tuesday, acting chief justice Sisi Khampepe said the constitutional court had considered giving Zuma (79) a suspended sentence for defying its order.
However, she maintained his direct public assaults on the judiciary and the country’s democracy in response to their order had left it no choice but to hand down a jail term to South Africa’s fifth post-apartheid president.
“I am left with no option but to commit Mr Zuma to imprisonment, with the hope that doing so sends an unequivocal message that the rule of law and the administration of justice prevails,” she said.
The court's ruling is a historic moment for South Africa, as Zuma is the first democratically elected president to be imprisoned since the African National Congress (ANC) party first came to power 27 years ago.
Lawyers for the public sector corruption inquiry had approached the constitutional court at the beginning of this year to seek an order for Zuma’s imprisonment, as he had repeatedly refused to satisfactorily answer questions about corruption during his presidency between 2009 and 2018.
The inquiry led by justice Raymond Zondo was established to investigate high-level graft during Zuma's time in office, and its work to date has fingered dozens of ANC officials, government administrators and private sector businesses in widespread tender fraud and graft.
Zuma has attended the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector twice to date. But on both occasions he refused to adequately address questions, claiming he could not remember the instances being referred to.
During his second appearance, in late 2020, Zuma walked out of proceedings without permission. When he refused to return in January this year, Justice Zondo appealed to the constitutional court, which ordered Zuma to appear.
Zuma subsequently refused to obey the apex court, saying he would rather go to jail.
The former president maintains that the inquiry’s efforts to make him address allegations of corruption are part of a political conspiracy linked to ANC factional battles. In addition, he says Justice Zondo is biased against him.
According to the court ruling, Zuma has five days to present himself at a police station. When he does he will be taken away by officers to begin his time behind bars. If he fails to do so, the minister for justice has been ordered to have him arrested.
Some political analysts have expressed concerns that sentencing Zuma to jail time might lead to outbreaks of violence among his political supporters, especially those in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal.
The former president did not attend the constitutional court on Tuesday for the ruling, but his daughter Duduzile Zuma has said in a Twitter post that he will comply with the sentencing and “is in high spirits and has no fear”.