Ex-South African President Joins Protest Against His Own Jail Sentence

South Africa's embattled former president Jacob Zuma (C) in the Pietermaritzburg High Court where he is appearing on corruption charges, in what would be the first time he faces trial for graft despite multiple accusations, in Pietermaritzburg on October 15, 2019. - Zuma stands accused of taking kickbacks before he …
MICHELE SPATARI/AFP via Getty Images

Former South African President Jacob Zuma marched with hundreds of his supporters Monday and claimed his 15-month jail sentence for contempt of court, handed down by the judges in his corruption trial, was a sign that “South Africa is sliding back to apartheid rule.”

“The fact that I was lambasted with a punitive jail sentence without trial should engender shock in all those who believe in freedom and the rule of law,” Zuma said Sunday.

“I fought and went to prison so there must be justice and the rule of law. No honest person can accuse me of being against the rule of law,” the 79-year-old ex-president insisted.

Zuma argued spending any time in jail “at the height of a pandemic” would be tantamount to “sentencing me to death,” given his age and fragile health.

He was sentenced to jail time Tuesday for refusing to appear at a hearing in February before a commission investigating allegations of widespread corruption during his presidential term, which ran from 2009 to 2018. 

Zuma’s family stands accused of teaming up with three Indian businessmen from the Gupta family to systematically loot the South African government while disabling the oversight and enforcement mechanisms that should have prevented the graft. Billions of dollars in public money vanished during Zuma’s presidency.

The Gupta family commanded lucrative contracts from the Zuma administration while employing several members of Zuma’s family in senior positions. The arrangement, prosecutors allege, gave the Guptas extraordinary power to direct South African policy for the enrichment of the two families, while Zuma allegedly used his presidential appointment powers to ensure state-owned businesses, regulatory boards, and law enforcement agencies were run by people who would play along with the corruption scheme. 

Zuma claimed Sunday that Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, head of the investigating commission, has treated him “unfairly and with bias.”

The former president was initially willing to appear before the commission when it launched in 2019, but he soon began accusing Zondo of bias and stormed out of a commission hearing in November 2020 when it refused his demands to have Zondo replaced. 

Detractors viewed Zuma’s constant court challenges against the commission as delaying tactics and efforts to rally his political supporters while undermining the corruption investigation.

South Africa’s constitutional court evidently agreed, granting the commission’s request to slap Zuma with a 15-month contempt of court sentence for failing to appear at a hearing in February, although the court indicated Saturday it would suspend Zuma’s sentence until it could hear his appeal at a July 12 session.

The Zondo commission denounced Zuma’s appeal as yet another delaying tactic. “Courts should not entertain such abuse any longer,” the commission said, blasting Zuma for crying that his “constitutional rights” were at stake after ostentatiously refusing to cooperate with the courts for over a year.

“He has had ample opportunity to assert his constitutional rights and has deliberately elected not to do so. The only inference here is that he is abusing the processes of this court to avoid going to prison,” commission secretary Itumeleng Mosala wrote in response to Zuma’s appeal.

Zondo, who assumed the position of acting Chief Justice last Thursday because Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng chose to conclude his tenure with a “long leave” that began on May 1 and showed no signs of ending, said Friday that Zuma’s relentless attacks and insults have made life difficult on himself, his family, and his investigation team.

“It hasn’t been easy,” said Zondo, “but I would do it again.”

Zondo, incidentally, is black and fought against the apartheid rule that Zuma accused his commission of trying to restore by persecuting him — fiery language clearly intended to rile up Zuma’s supporters and deepen divisions in the governing African National Congress (ANC) party. Three of the four executive members of the Zondo Commission are black.

Zuma’s strategy for fighting the Zondo commission involved retiring to his hometown of Nkandla to rally his supporters, who staged a protest march Saturday as a show of force against the Zondo Commission.

“They can give Zuma 15 months … or 100 months. He’s not going to serve even one day or one minute of that. They would have to kill me before they put their hands on him,” Jacob Zuma’s son Edward said at the rally.

Zuma supporters said they would act as “human shields” to protect him against arrest, defying coronavirus restrictions to swarm around him by the hundreds, with no police officers in sight.

“A messy confrontation would have ensued if police dared to arrest me,” Zuma boasted to his cheering followers in Nkandla.

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