“The only appropriate sanction is a direct and unsuspended imprisonment order” for 15 months, the Constitutional Court said in a judgment on Tuesday. It is the first time in the country’s history that a former president has been sentenced to prison.
Zuma, 79, must surrender to the police within five days. If he does not, the police must “take all necessary measures” to ensure that he goes to jail, the court said. Zuma is normally based at his farm in Nkandla, rural KwaZulu-Natal.
The court ruling has been hailed by civil society activists as a key moment for South African democracy. The ruling African National Congress called on its “members to stay calm.” Zuma led the party for nearly a decade and still has supporters within the ANC.
The case was seen as a major test for justice and investigation. Zuma “sought to ignore, undermine and in many ways completely destroy the rule of law,” the court said.
He found that Zuma was in contempt of court and said he was responding to “a series of direct assaults and calculated and insidious efforts on the part of [Zuma] to eat away at its legitimacy and its authority ”. He added: “The strength of the judiciary is being tested. . . never before has the judicial process been so threatened.
The former president had ignored an order to appear before the commission of inquiry into corruption and Raymond Zondo, vice-president of the South African justice and head of the investigation, had asked for his imprisonment for his mistrust.
The long-standing investigation investigated allegations that Zuma helped the Guptas, a well-known business family, secure contracts with the state and determine policy, in what became the scandal of the “State capture”. The Guptas and Zuma deny wrongdoing.
Zuma was forced to resign in 2018 due to corruption scandals, and the investigation has become one of the most powerful symbols of the cleanup under Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, and its limitations and torpor.
Dozens of witnesses implicated the former president in systematic bribery, including the manipulation of ministerial appointments and contracts to further the business empire of the Indian-born family.
Zuma made a brief appearance at the inquest in 2019 to deny any involvement in corruption and claim his accusers were part of a Western-sponsored “campaign to take me off the scene”.
But on his next appearance, he refused to answer questions and organized a walkout and did not return to the witness stand.
The former president also refused to engage with the constitutional court. “It is not our law that I am challenging, but a few lawless judges who left their constitutional office for political convenience,” Zuma said, referring to Zondo and the judges of the constitutional court.
Zuma’s challenge left the court no choice, said Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the Constitution of South Africa, a legal watchdog, describing it as a “great day for constitutionalism. and the rule of law in South Africa. . . It is a true affirmation of the fundamental principles of our democratic state.
Zuma, who was a prisoner in the infamous apartheid-era prison on Robben Island and ANC intelligence boss during the anti-apartheid struggle, said he would rather face prison rather than to follow an order to return to the investigation.
Despite this, Zuma and his legal team “thought he would get a conditional sentence” rather than a direct jail sentence, said William Gumede, chairman of the Democracy Works foundation. “He will try to make a martyr of it” but “it is a shock for him”, he declared.
The judgment will send a strong signal that even senior ANC leaders are not untouchable, Gumede said. “People are shaking in their boots now. . . if the former president with his still considerable power in the country can be imprisoned. . . if you are a lower official, your day will come, ”said Gumede.
“It is an absolutely important decision to draw a line in the sand for the rule of law in South Africa,” he said, hailing the Constitutional Court as “the last frontier, the last line of defense” for South African democracy.
“This is a historically significant moment,” said Karam Singh, head of legal affairs and investigations at Corruption Watch, an anti-corruption non-governmental organization. “For the first time in South Africa, we see a former head of state held directly responsible through a prison sentence. “