Jacob Zuma, who’s been repeatedly implicated in aiding and abetting the plunder of state funds during the near decade he led South Africa, was sentenced to 15 months in jail for defying a court order to testify at a graft inquiry.
The Constitutional Court ruled in January that Zuma had to respond to questions from a judicial commission headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. But the 79-year-old former intelligence operative accused the court and Zondo of bias and boycotted a panel hearing a month later, after having walked out of one in November. The panel responded by filing contempt charges against him.
“The Constitutional Court can do nothing but conclude that Mr. Zuma is guilty of the crime of contempt of court,” acting Chief Justice Sisi Khampepe said in a ruling in Johannesburg on Tuesday. “Mr. Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma is sentenced to undergo 15 months imprisonment.”
The ruling offers a mixed blessing for President Cyril Ramaphosa. While Zuma’s incarceration will silence one of his biggest detractors and demonstrate his administration’s commitment to upholding the rule of law, it could also widen divisions within the ruling party and alienate its supporters in the former president’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal.
“We think a dark cloud has just covered South Africa,” Mzwanele Manyi, spokesman for the Zuma Foundation, said by phone. “What kind of humanity is this where an 80-year-old man that did not kill anyone is treated as though he is a cold criminal. So it’s a serious, sad day in South Africa.”
The ruling African National Congress, which Zuma led from 2007 to 2017, said it’s studying the judgment.
“Without doubt this is a difficult period in the movement and we call upon our members to remain calm,” the party said in a statement.
Ramaphosa has made the fight against graft a top priority of his administration.
Since coming to power in February 2018, he’s been rebuilding the nation’s law-enforcement capabilities that were systematically hollowed out during Zuma’s nine-year rule to protect him and his allies from prosecution. Tuesday’s ruling follows the suspension last month of Ace Magashule, one of the top leaders of the ANC who is facing charges including fraud and money laundering.
The government estimates more than 500 billion rand ($35 billion) was stolen from the state during Zuma’s rule, and at least 40 witnesses who’ve appeared before Zondo linked the ex-president to the looting spree. Zuma, who the ruling party forced to quit in 2018 to stem a loss of electoral support, has denied wrongdoing and says the allegations against him are part of a smear campaign.
Zuma wasn’t present for Tuesday’s ruling. He has five days to present himself to the authorities.
In the event that Zuma fails to hand himself over the police must “take all steps that are necessary” to ensure he is delivered to a prison to start serving his sentence, Khampepe said.
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