South Africa’s highest court has found former President Jacob Zuma guilty of contempt of court and sentenced him to 15 months in prison on Tuesday, for failing to appear to a panel of inquiry probing corruption allegations against him.
Zuma has been at the center of a judicial probe in South Africa for allegations of corruption perpetrated during his time in power between 2009 and 2018.
The Constitutional Court of South Africa ordered that Zuma present himself at a police station in his home town of Nkandla or Johannesburg within five days.
In a scathing judgment, Justice Sisi Khampepe ruled: “There can be no doubt that Mr Zuma is in contempt of court.”
Zuma had denied any wrongdoing, dubbing the corruption inquiry a ‘political witch hunt.’
Judge Khampepe said that Zuma attempted to corrode the legitimacy of the Constitutional Court by conducting a “politically motivated smear campaign” against it, the commission and the judiciary.
“He (Mr. Zuma) elected instead to make provocative, unmeritorious and vituperative statements that constituted a calculated effort to impugn the integrity of the judiciary.
“I am left with no option but to commit Mr. Zuma to imprisonment, with the hope that doing so sends an unequivocal message… the rule of law and the administration of justice prevails.”
She said the court needs to make a bold statement to deter future occurrence of Mr. Zuma’s behavior.
“No person is above the law … whatever his rank or condition,” she said, continuing: “An act of defiance in respect of a direct judicial order has the potential to precipitate a constitutional crisis.
“If with impunity litigants are allowed to decide which orders they wish to obey, and which they wish to ignore, then our Constitution is not worth the paper on which it is written.”
Mr. Zuma was ousted in 2018 following internal discord among the ruling African National Congress (ANC), against a backdrop of public outrage over alleged corruption and mismanagement of state resources.
Following his ouster, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, set up judicial inquiry after an ombudsman report called for an investigation into possible improper contact between senior members of Zuma’s former administration and three wealthy businessmen — the Gupta brothers — all of whom have denied wrongdoing. The Guptas fled South Africa upon Zuma’s ousting.
His successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has vowed and made a concerted effort to rid the corruption within the government and his own ANC party, faces a giant hurdle of a rift between his supporters and a core of Zuma loyalists.
South Africa is riddled with an economic crisis that has been largely attributed to corruption. Economists broadly agree that the pilfering of state resources in recent decades has had a negative impact on the nation’s economy, state-owned enterprises and public services.
The ruling is expected to have an impact within the governing ANC that has been divided between supporters of Mr. Zuma and President Ramaphosa. For president Ramaphosa, it will be a source of vigor to reinforce his fight against “state capture” corruption within the party and the country as whole, while for those with Zuma, it will mean a deadly blow as he is the figurehead of their camp.
Meanwhile, Mr. Zuma’s sentence puts a soul-searching challenge to other African countries. The continent is engulfed by graft epidemic that is buoyed by lax anti-graft laws and lack of political will by state actors to prosecute perpetrators. Hardly do African leaders involved in corruption get prosecuted, and when they do, they are easily exonerated.
Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy is also bedridden with graft. Nearly all of its leaders have been fingered in corruption scandals, but only a few, excluding presidents, have been convicted for corruption due to political, tribal and personal interests. It is hoped that president Ramaphosa’s political will to fight corruption within his own party and government, will send a wake up message to the rest of the continent.