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South Africa: Zuma’s ‘historic’ sentence took many by surprise

By Anna Maree
Posted on Wednesday, 30 June 2021 18:21

Former South African President Jacob Zuma appears before the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 16, 2019. Pool via REUTERS

South Africa's Constitutional Court has given former president Jacob Zuma only two options after sentencing him to 15 months in prison for contempt: hand himself over to the police or face arrest.

Tuesday’s (29 June) judgement took many by surprise, not only because it was so stern, but primarily because Zuma had been battling the judicial system for 16 years after he was first formally implicated in corruption.

The historic sentence for the 79-year-old isn’t for graft, but for ignoring a court order that compelled him to testify before an inquiry on the large-scale corruption – or state capture – that took place during his presidency from 2009 to 2018.

The sentence “cannot properly capture the damage that Mr Zuma has done to the dignity and integrity of the judicial system of a democratic and constitutional nation,” said Sisi Khamphephe, the acting chief justice, as he read out the court’s majority judgement, that took just under an hour to deliver.

“He owes this sentence in respect of violating not only this court, nor even just the sanctity of the judiciary, but to the nation he once promised to lead and to the Constitution he once vowed to uphold.”

The ruling was hailed as historic because it is the first time that a former president of South Africa has been sentenced to jail, and it is the first time that the country’s apex court has imposed a prison sentence.

Two of the nine justices dissented, saying the court should not impose a prison sentence since this cannot be appealed, but the judgement of the majority prevailed.

Will he readily comply?

It is not the first time that the constitutional court has made a historic judgement against Zuma. In March 2016, the court ruled that then-president Zuma had violated the Constitution – and his oath of office to uphold it – by disregarding the public protector’s findings that he should repay public money unlawfully spent on non-security upgrades at his private home in Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal province.

I am rejoicing not that someone is going to jail, but in the triumph of democracy because a person was charged based on the crime, not on who they are.

It was expected that the judgement would compel Zuma to resign, or parliament to impeach him; but due to ongoing support at the time from the governing African National Congress, none of this happened. Whether he will readily comply with this week’s judgement is not a given either.

“President Zuma just feels hard done by the legal system in the country,” said Zuma’s spin doctor, Mzwanele Manyi, who was a government spokesperson during the former president’s tenure. Manyi had hinted that Zuma “may soon address the nation” but only after his legal team have studied the judgement.

However, his daughter Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla tweeted that Zuma would report to the police in Nkandla area and that she would escort him to serve his time.

Subsequently, and more ominously, Zuma’s paramilitary supporters threatened to go to Nkandla to “protect” him from arrest, implying that his daughter’s tweet was premature.

About 100 camouflaged members of the ANC’s wing of former liberation fighters – the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) – have been camping in Nkandla since February, when Zuma was first threatened with arrest for refusing to testify before the state capture inquiry.

Spokesperson Carl Niehaus has said “many more” will go to defend Zuma. “They will mostly be from KwaZulu-Natal, but I can’t say that they will only come from there,” he said.

This could pose a double challenge to authorities as the MKMVA was formally disbanded by the ANC earlier this month, and gatherings have been forbidden amidst a harsh Covid-19 wave that resulted in strict lockdown measures imposed by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday.

The populist Zuma has always used his ability to pull crowds as a show of power. One of Zuma’s sons, Edwin, has vowed to resist his father’s arrest. “I will lay down my life for president Zuma,” he told reporters at Nkandla. “If they have to kill me, so be it.”

Zuma’s former presidential aide and spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, however thinks that Zuma will choose to go to jail. He will use this to “try to clothe himself in the garb of a victim” as he will continue to appear in court from there for his ongoing trial for the corruption allegedly committed more than two decades ago.

“Many voices in this country who seen to undermine our Constitution will exploit this,” he told Newzroom Afrika presenter Stephen Grootes, in reference to Zuma’s remaining supporters in the ANC’s leadership. “The idea that he will not go to prison and expect the masses to stand up on his side is very remote.”

Gauging his support

Maharaj ascribed Zuma’s current fate as a tragedy. “I think he walked down a slippery slope to the point where he began to believe in himself and placed himself above the law,” he said.

Most commentators have welcomed the judgement as proof that wrongdoing is held to account by the justice system. ANC veteran Mavuso Msimang said he was rejoicing, “not that someone is going to jail, but in the triumph of democracy” because a person was charged “based on the crime, not on who they are”.

The ANC, where Zuma still serves as an ex-officio leader despite the serious criminal charges against him, simply said it “noted” the judgement and would “reflect on [its] implications and consequences” at the party’s national executive committee meeting this weekend. Zuma usually participates in the committee’s meetings, and might be using this to gauge support before his Monday deadline to report to the police.

With most of the committee members firmly behind Ramaphosa’s efforts to clean up government corruption, and with the majority of them holding positions in his cabinet, they might express sympathy to Zuma as an elderly man, but they’re unlikely to show much leniency.

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