JOHANNESBURG: Jacob Zuma on Thursday began a 15-month sentence for contempt of court, becoming South Africa’s first post-apartheid president to be jailed after a drama that campaigners said ended in a victory for rule of law.
Zuma, 79, reported to prison early on Thursday after mounting a last-ditch legal bid and stoking defiance among radical supporters who had rallied at his rural home.
His battle transfixed the country, placing a spotlight on the issue of impunity and tensions within the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
South Africa’s top court on June 29 slapped Zuma with a 15-month term for refusing to appear before a probe into the corruption that entangled his nine years in power.
As police warned he faced arrest from midnight on Wednesday, Zuma handed himself in to a jail in the rural town of Estcourt in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal.
Many South Africans hailed his incarceration as a watershed moment for the young democracy.
Former corruption buster Thuli Madonsela hailed it as “a giant development to the country’s rule of law journey.” “But at a human level, it’s a sad moment because it’s something that could have been avoided. We didn’t have to have a 79-year-old former head of state and former liberation struggle stalwart go to jail just because just he doesn’t want to be held to account,” she said.
The opposition Democratic Alliance said, “the law cannot be mocked and challenged with impunity. If the leader can go to prison, then so can anyone.” But, it cautioned, the contempt sentence did not address the wider corruption, fraud and racketeering that proliferated under Zuma. The Nelson Mandela Foundation struck a similar note.
“His legal strategy has been one of obfuscation and delay, ultimately in an attempt to render our judicial processes unintelligible,” it said.
“It is tempting to regard Mr Zuma’s arrest as the end of the road” rather than “merely another phase... in a long and fraught journey,” the foundation warned.
Born into poverty, Zuma started out as an uneducated herdboy who joined the ANC, becoming its intelligence chief in its anti-apartheid struggle.
His charisma and courage, including 10 years in jail on notorious Robben Island, placed him alongside Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and other liberation heroes.
In 2009, he became democratic South Africa’s third president, but it proved to be a tenure darkened by divisions and the stench of corruption.
In 2018, Zuma was forced out by the ANC and replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa, a former trade union leader who became a tycoon after apartheid was finally dismantled 30 years ago.
Investigators say that under Zuma, billions of dollars in state assets were siphoned off by cronies.
But their efforts to get Zuma to testify ran into a wall. Critics labelled him the “Teflon president” for his perceived ability to sidestep justice.
Zuma had been given a deadline of Sunday night for turning himself in. Failing his surrender, police were given three days — until midnight on Wednesday — to arrest him.
Zuma filed a last-ditch petition to overturn the arrest and pleaded with the Constitutional Court to rescind its sentence. The court will hear the plea on Monday.
Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2021