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South Africa: Zuma’s imprisonment marks important milestone for country’s constitutional democracy

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Thursday, 8 July 2021 18:02

Former president Jacob Zuma addresses the press at his home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal Natal Province, Sunday, July 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Shiraaz Mohamed)

South Africa's former president Jacob Zuma went to jail in his state-funded VIP convoy just before midnight on Wednesday 7 July. His convoy sped out of the gate of his rural homestead in Nkandla without as much as a greeting to his inebriated son, Edward, who had been standing guard outside with a wooden stick in his hand, flanked by journalists and a small group of Zuma's supporters.

There was none of the bloodshed that supporters in his volatile KwaZulu-Natal Province threatened to unleash days before. Zuma was taken into police custody with less than an hour to go until the deadline set by the constitutional court eight days earlier, where he was given a 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court.

The populist and charismatic former leader led the governing African National Congress (ANC) for a decade and was president of South Africa for almost nine years, until 2018. He prided himself on being able to appeal to the downtrodden and attract crowds.

Supporters of South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma rally outside his home in Nkandla, South Africa, 7 July 2021. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

‘Jailed without a trial in a democratic country’

Zuma’s daughter Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, tweeted hours after her father arrived at the newly refurbished Estcourt prison, a two-hour drive on treacherous rural roads, that he: “Was Jailed Without A Trial In A Democratic Country. A Travesty Of Justice!!! @MYANC My Father’s Blood Is On Your Hands!”

Like many of his supporters, Duduzile is implying, without any proof, that President Cyril Ramaphosa had orchestrated Zuma’s conviction by influencing the judiciary. Her twin brother, Duduzane, has indicated that he would challenge Ramaphosa for the ANC’s presidency at its conference next year.

A return to prison

It is not Zuma’s first time in prison. He was released to Nkandla 48 years earlier after he was imprisoned under apartheid laws for his activities in the liberation struggle.

Without doubt this is a difficult period in the movement, and we call upon our members to remain calm.

“I’m not scared of going to jail for my beliefs,” he told journalists on Sunday 4 July. “It will not be for the first time. I will be a prisoner of conscience. I have already spent more than 10 years on Robben Island under very difficult and cruel conditions.”

Zuma shared a communal cell with a group of between 30 to 50 other inmates at the infamous prison, according to South African History Online. He never received any visits from home because his mother, a domestic worker, earned a salary too meagre to afford the fare. He wrote to her to ask her to use the money to look after his siblings. Like the other inmates – which also included Nelson Mandela – he worked in the prison quarry and participated in political and sporting activities on the island, 14km off the coast from Cape Town.

Contempt of court

Zuma claimed that the constitutional court imposed its first-ever prison sentence on him without a trial, a tool often used by the repressive apartheid regime to sentence opponents. But he himself forced the sentence by choosing not to oppose the charges of contempt.

These were brought after he failed to comply with an order to testify in front of the ‘state capture’ inquiry, a commission set up to examine the large-scale government corruption that occurred under his watch as the country’s president from 2009 to 2018.

Zuma maintains that the presiding deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo would not be objective because he had a child with one of Zuma’s wives’ sisters 25 years ago.

ANC reacts

In its reaction to Zuma’s incarceration, the ANC wished him well and restated its “unequivocal commitment to and defence of the constitution”, but added: “Without doubt this is a difficult period in the movement, and we call upon our members to remain calm.”

Only four years ago, the party’s members of parliament defended Zuma – as an embodiment of the party – to the hilt, voting against a motion of no-confidence despite a finding by the constitutional court that Zuma had violated his oath of office to uphold the constitution. This was related to using public money illegally to upgrade his Nkandla home by adding bunkers, a swimming pool, cattle culverts and a tuck shop for staff and villagers.

He [Zuma] was very much the embodiment of corruption, state capture and the entitlement that if you are elected as part of the liberation movement government you are owed something.

There has been a clear turnabout in the party after three and a half years of Ramaphosa’s leadership. After a meeting by its national executive committee (NEC) on Monday 6 July, the party stated that it was committed to the country’s constitution and the independence of its judiciary.

The committee stated it believes “everyone is equal before the law, has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law, and conversely, that every person has an equal responsibility to respect and protect the law.”

Almost half of the NEC originally belonged to Zuma’s camp in the party, and on a personal level many sympathise with him.

Corruption allegations…

Zuma has been battling corruption allegations since 2005, when the former deputy president was fired by former president Thabo Mbeki after a court found that his financial adviser had a corrupt relationship with Zuma.

Zuma was elected ANC president in 2007 despite facing corruption charges. These were subsequently dropped when he became president in 2009 but reinstated after he was booted from power in 2018. The charges relate to his role in South Africa’s multibillion-rand arms deal in the 1990s, which the most powerful leaders in the ANC defended at the time.

Zuma’s imprisonment marks an important milestone in South Africa’s 27-year history as a constitutional democracy and the impunity under his reign.

“He was very much the embodiment of corruption, state capture and the entitlement that if you are elected as part of the liberation movement government you are owed something,” says Susan Booysen, director of research at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection and author of Precarious Power: Compliance and Discontent under Ramaphosa’s ANC.

Weight of charge

She says even though contempt of court might appear like a small charge compared to corruption, it is significant. “He cannot give account [before the state capture inquiry] without either indicting himself or lying. He cannot start accounting because he will be sentencing himself to his next prison term.”

Former head of Mbeki’s presidency, Frank Chikane, says Zuma could apply for a presidential pardon should he be ready to admit wrongdoing. “It is a tragedy that either he made wrong decisions or he was advised badly by the comrades he worked with,” he told SAFM’s Cathy Mohlahlana on Thursday morning.

Those who continue stealing money would have no political cover anymore, he said, adding that those who were corrupt collaborated with each other and were ready to take the country and the party down with them rather than account.

The former reverend compared it to “Samson who went to the pillars of the temple, pulled it down, and all the leaders died with him. So instead of going to jail, they want to pull down the country, and we are saying ‘no’.”

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