In divisive ex-president’s prison sentence, South Africans see a reckoning

In divisive ex-president’s prison sentence, South Africans see a reckoning

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Judge Sisi Khampepe hands over documents at the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, South Africa, June 29, 2021. The country’s highest court sentenced former President Jacob Zuma to 15 months in jail for defying summons to an inquiry into corruption during his time in power.

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June 30, 2021

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Former President Jacob Zuma has long been a symbolic figure in South African politics.

A guerrilla fighter in the liberation movement, he never formally attended school. Where the presidents who preceded him spoke crisp, formal English and courted the country’s white elite, Mr. Zuma preferred to speak in Zulu and had no qualms about the fact that his people were the country’s poor, Black majority.

Why We Wrote This

High-level corruption has shaken many South Africans’ faith in their government. In the first sentencing of a former president, many see an affirmation that no one is above the law – an affirmation of equality, the cornerstone of the new South Africa.

But from his earliest days in national politics, Mr. Zuma has also been embroiled in scandal. And on Tuesday, he became the country’s first former president to be sentenced to jail. The Constitutional Court found him guilty of contempt of court for refusing to testify before a corruption commission, and gave him five days to present himself and begin a 15-month sentence.

Mr. Zuma’s supporters argue the sentence is a smokescreen, deflecting attention from the country’s rampant poverty, inequality, and widespread mismanagement. But for many South Africans, the judgment symbolizes that no one, however powerful, is above the law.

Tuesday’s order for Mr. Zuma’s arrest referred to his open hatred for the courts, arguing that this threatened the foundations of South Africa’s democracy. His allegations “are an insult to constitutional dispensation for which so many men and women fought and lost their lives,” acting Deputy Chief Justice Sisi Khampepe read from the judgment.

Johannesburg

When then-President Nelson Mandela inaugurated South Africa’s highest court in February 1995, he issued a stern warning to its justices.

“People come and go. Customs, fashions, and preferences change. Yet the web of fundamental rights and justice which a nation proclaims must not be broken,” he said at the opening of the Constitutional Court. “It is the task of this court to ensure that the values of freedom and equality which underlie our … constitution are nurtured and protected so that they may endure.”

Twenty-six years later, on a bright winter’s day in Johannesburg, the country watched as that same court faced a fundamental reckoning over those values. Would it order the arrest of the country’s former President Jacob Zuma, who had repeatedly shrugged off a government corruption inquiry in which he was heavily implicated? Or would it let Mr. Zuma, a former liberation fighter with a wide following among the country’s poor and marginalized people, off the hook?

Why We Wrote This

High-level corruption has shaken many South Africans’ faith in their government. In the first sentencing of a former president, many see an affirmation that no one is above the law – an affirmation of equality, the cornerstone of the new South Africa.

The court was unequivocal.

“Never before has this Court’s authority and legitimacy been subjected to the kinds of attacks that Mr. Zuma has elected to launch against it and its members,” acting Deputy Chief Justice Sisi Khampepe said Tuesday, reading from the judgment to a courtroom kept nearly empty by a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic. “His attempts to evoke public sympathy through unfounded allegations fly in the face of reason and are an insult to constitutional dispensation for which so many men and women fought and lost their lives.”

Mr. Zuma’s time was up, she said. The former president, who didn’t attend the hearing, has five days to turn himself in and begin 15 months in jail.

Never before has a former South African head of state been sentenced, and for many, that historic judgment symbolizes that no one here, however powerful, is above the law.


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“It’s about accountability, because when you’re a government official you’re accountable to the people of the country,” says Shenilla Mohamed, executive director of Amnesty International South Africa. “The judgment has given hope to the people of South Africa that justice will be served and the people responsible will not escape the net of the law.”

For Mr. Zuma’s many supporters, however, the decision reads differently. This is scapegoating, they say, a smokescreen to deflect attention from the real issues the young country faces: rampant poverty, inequality, and widespread government mismanagement that has left many of its public services broken and underfunded. 

AP

Former South African President Jacob Zuma addresses supporters outside the High Court in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, May 26, 2021, where he faced charges of corruption. On June 29, Mr. Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in jail for contempt of court.

“He is unjustly being targetted,” wrote the Mkhonto We Sizwe Military Veterans Association, an organization of former liberation fighters that has vowed to “protect” Mr. Zuma from arrest. “He was one of the most prominent liberation fighters and ANC political leaders, who gave his all for our current National Constitution to be adopted, and he cannot allow that the very same constitution is being abused,” the group said in a statement.

Mr. Zuma has long been a symbolic figure in South African politics. A guerrilla fighter in the country’s liberation movement, he never formally attended school. Where the presidents who preceded him, Mr. Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, spoke crisp, formal English and courted the country’s white elite, Mr. Zuma preferred to speak in Zulu and had no qualms about the fact that his people were the country’s poor, Black majority.

“Apartheid denied Black people education and Zuma represents that, and relates to that,” says Asanda Ngoasheng, a political analyst in Cape Town. “In a world where everyone is Westernized, he appeals to many people because he speaks about the pride he takes in his own culture.”

But from his earliest days in national politics, Mr. Zuma has also been embroiled in scandal. He was sacked as the country’s deputy president in 2005 for taking and facilitating bribes in a major government arms deal in the 1990s. But he retained wide support among those who felt he was being victimized by an out-of-touch political elite, and in 2009 he was elected president.

Under Mr. Zuma’s tenure, South Africans watched as many of their public services were hollowed out by corruption – with the most notable accusations against the Guptas, a family of Indian businessmen with close ties to Mr. Zuma and his administration. There were other scandals too, like a dubious $17 million upgrade to Mr. Zuma’s private homestead on the taxpayer’s dime. (He later paid back a portion of the money.)

In 2016, the country’s public protector – the country’s anticorruption ombudsman – called for Mr. Zuma to set up a commission of inquiry into what she called “state capture,” or the corrupt takeover of government institutions by outside interests.

He allowed the commission to go forward, but when it called Mr. Zuma himself to testify in 2019, after his presidency had ended, he refused to answer its questions, and eventually walked out. The country’s Constitutional Court ordered him to return, warning he would be in contempt of court if he did not.

He didn’t come back. Instead, he wrote a long letter to the chief justice, explaining that the case against him was “an extraordinary abuse of judicial authority to advance politically charged narratives.”

Tuesday’s order for Mr. Zuma’s arrest referred to his open hatred for the courts, arguing that it threatened the foundations of South Africa’s democracy.

“The vigor with which Mr. Zuma is peddling his disdain of this Court and the judicial process carries the further risk that he will inspire or incite others to similarly defy this Court, the judicial process and the rule of law,” Justice Khampepe read from the judgment.

Mr. Zuma still faces corruption charges for his dealings in the 1999 arms deal, in a case widely expected to go to trial later this year.

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With the country under lockdown to slow a third wave of the coronavirus, reaction to his sentence for contempt of court was muted. But many echoed the sentiment of political commentator Oscar van Heerden.

“Today,” he wrote in The Daily Maverick, “it feels good to be South African.”

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Mark Sappenfield
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