South Africa’s Supreme Court has sentenced former President Jacob Zuma to 15 months in prison for contempt of court after he defied an order to attend an investigation into corruption allegations under his presidency.
In a ruling issued on Tuesday, the Constitutional Court said: “The only appropriate punishment is a direct, unsuspended order of imprisonment” for 15 months.
This is the first time a former South African president has been sentenced to prison since the end of apartheid. The case was a major test for the judiciary and investigation. The court said Zuma “sought to ignore, undermine and in many ways completely destroy the rule of law”.
Zuma must turn himself in to the police within five days. If he does not do so, the court said, the police must “take all necessary steps” within three days to ensure he is in prison.
The court said Zuma was in contempt of court and was responding to “a series of direct assaults and calculated and malicious efforts by [Zuma] to challenge its legitimacy.” She added: “The power of the judiciary is being tested…the judicial process has never been threatened before.”
The former president had ignored the summons to appear before the Corruption Inquiry Commission, and Raymond Zondo, the vice-president of the South African Supreme Court and head of the inquiry, sought his imprisonment for defying him.
The long-running investigation was investigating allegations that Zuma helped the Guptas, a well-known merchant family, secure state contracts and set policy, in what became known as the “state takeover” scandal. Guptas and Zuma deny any wrongdoing.
Zuma was forced out in 2018 by corruption scandals and the investigation became one of the most powerful cleanup symbols under Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa – as well as its limits and slumber. “His conduct is inconsistent with the obligation he has as president” to uphold the rule of law, the Constitutional Court said.
Zuma set up the investigation weeks before he fell from power following an order from South Africa’s Public Defender, or government ombudsman. Since then, dozens of witnesses have implicated the former president in systematic corruption, including manipulation of ministerial appointments and contracts in favor of the Indian-born family’s business empire.
Zuma once appeared briefly before the investigative committee in 2019 to deny involvement in corruption and claim that his accusers were part of a “Western-sponsored campaign to keep me off the scene”.
But on his next appearance, he refused to answer the questions and withdrew and did not return to the witness stand.
The former president also refused to deal with the Constitutional Court, and refused to respond when the judges asked him what sentence would be most appropriate for him if they found that he should be imprisoned.
“It is not our law that I challenge, but a few outlaw justices who have left their constitutional positions for political interests,” Zuma said, referring to Zondo and judges on the Constitutional Court.
Zuma, who was an inmate at the notorious apartheid-era prison on Robben Island and head of ANC intelligence during the anti-apartheid struggle, said he would rather go to jail than follow an order to return to the investigation.