Former South African president, Jacob Zuma

South African court jails former president Zuma for contempt

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The Constitutional Court on Tuesday, in a majority ruling, found former president Jacob Zuma in contempt of court and sentenced him to prison for 15 months for violating the authority of the court and repeatedly attacking the dignity of the judiciary. 

He has five days to present himself to either the Nkandla police station or one in Johannesburg, the court said. 

In a judgment penned and delivered by acting Deputy Chief Justice Sisi Khampepe, it was said that the court had a duty to punish not only Zuma’s defiance of its order to comply with summons to testify before the Zondo commission, but his casual and “scandalous” attacks on the courts.

It would be naive to believe that handing down a suspended sentence, aimed at still bringing him to testify, would have the desired effect, Khampepe said. 

In fact, it only posed the likely risk of the former head of state redoubling his efforts to undermine the rule of law.  

“It defies logic to believe that a suspended sentence would have any effect other than to prolong his defiance and to signal dangerously that impunity is to be enjoyed by those who defy court orders,” Khampepe said.

She said although the case and its circumstances were exceptional, it would be wrong to think that the majority was writing legal precedent with its sentence. It was simply applying the law and doing so evenly.

“It is disturbing that he who twice sought allegiance to the republic, its laws and its constitution has sought to ignore, undermine and in many ways destroy the rule of law altogether,” she said.

“In taking stock of the cumulative effect of these exceptional circumstances, the majority finds that it must grant an order that will vindicate the court’s order and protect and maintain public confidence in the legitimacy of the judiciary.

“Accordingly the only appropriate sanction is a direct, unsuspended order of imprisonment, because the alternative would be to effectively sentence the legitimacy of the judiciary to inevitable decay,” Khampepe said.

The majority judgment seeks not only to punish Zuma for failing to obey the court’s order in January that he heed directives from the commission to testify, but his sustained efforts to impugn the courts. These were aggravating factors, she said, as was his failure to file submissions to the court despite invitation to do so.

Khampepe said the public had an interest in Zuma appearing before the commission; it also had equal, if not greater, interest in the protection of the rule of law and the dignity of the courts. 

The court awarded costs against Zuma.

After the court decision, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress called on its members to remain calm.

The party is studying the judgment of the Constitutional Court and the National Executive Committee, its highest decision-making body, “will reflect on implications and consequences” at a meeting this weekend, the ANC said Tuesday in a statement.

“We further reaffirm our commitment to upholding the rule of law and fulfilling the aspirations of our constitutional democracy,” the party said.

While Zuma stepped down as ANC leader in December 2017 and was ousted as South Africa’s president two months later, he still enjoys support in the party among those who oppose attempts by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration to hold government officials accountable for corruption. – Mail & Guardian/Bloomberg/African Thinker