South Africa’s constitutional court has sentenced formerpresident Jacob Zuma to 15 months in prison for contempt of court.
The Constitutional Court’s majority found Zuma guilty of failing to obey its order in January that he attend to Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s state capture inquiry for questioning.
The majority decision by seven justices, with two justices dissenting, said there was no other option but to sentence Zuma to a term behind bars as there was no chance, by his own public comments repeatedly made, that he would obey the Court, citing his statements the he would rather go to jail.
Zuma, 79, was given five days to present himself for incarceration, failing which he would be arrested by police
The Constitutional Court said Zuma’s conduct was ‘recalcitrant’, ‘egregious’, smacking of ‘malice’ and was ongoing, giving the court no choice but to deprive Zuma of his freedom.
The minority dissenting judgment held that while Zuma was no doubt guilty of contempt, but that without legal precedent and in violation of standard procedures normally undertaken in circumstances where civil contempt might arise to a criminal matter, a jail term was not in line with the constitution.
Zuma’s spokesman Mzwanele Manyi said the judgment was a “sad day” for South Africa.
He emphasised that at least two Justices found that jailing Zuma would be unconstitutional and that the order, which is not appealable, represents a “constitutional crisis”.
He added that a full response would follow after the judgment had been studied in detail.
Legal analysts said it was a watershed moment in South Africa jurisprudence and for the Constitutional Court as guardian of the constitution.
Detailing the steps which had led to its landmark determination, the Constitutional Court majority, represented by Justice Sisi Khampepe who wrote the majority judgment, was thorough.
The Acting Chief Justice covered the same terrain as dissenting Justices Theron and Jaftha, who agreed that Zuma was guilty of contempt, but she explored also the fact that Zuma was “no ordinary person” but was rather a former president of the country and was capable through public statements of contributing further to damaging the judiciary and the rule of law.
It was necessary for the vindication of the court and protection of the rule of law that Zuma be sentenced to jail, she concluded.
Social media in the country immediately lit up, with pro-Zuma elements warning that “all hell will now break lose”, while many others hailed the judgment in light of the vast looting of state funds which took place during Zuma’s nine-year rule.
Prior to the judgment it was widely expected in judicial and political circles that Zuma would likely be jailed, but there was extensive dispute, as expressed by the minority of justices and among other judges, about the utility of a sentence of jail time rather than a coercive suspended sentence designed to force Zuma to testify.
But the Concourt majority of Justices determined there was no point to a coercive suspended sentence since Zuma himself had not only declined to engage with the Concourt on the issue.
He had been invited by the Court to say why he should not go to jail, but he refused to appear before it and he had repeatedly said he would rather go to jail than obey the Concourt’s order and appear before Zondo’s commission.
Justice Khampepe said the Concourt had “gone out if its way” to ensure that Zuma suffered no judicial unfairness, hence the invitation to him to make representations to it regarding sentencing.
Outside Zuma’s rural homestead at Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal province, a small contingent of supposedly former members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party’s armed wing were present, saying “no-one will come and take Jacob Zuma to prison”.
Other supporters of Zuma were gathering at the homestead, while it is understood that separate protests and actions by pro-Zuma elements were being planned.
Zuma had been planning to attend the state funeral of former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, but that will now not happen.
Despite a jail term, the sentence is less than Zondo was asking for, being two years for repeat contempt of his commission.
The reasons, said Acting Chief Justice Khampepe in her judgment, was that Zuma was guilty of contempt of the Constitutional Court’s order and that is what the court had to act on.
Analysts pointed out that all the justices were in agreement on the fundamentals of the case, including Zuma being guilty of contempt, the only issuing being what was the best and most appropriate sentence.
Despite Zuma’s spokesman and other supporters making much of the split decision, legal experts pointed out that such judgments were fairly common and the split had no effect on the majority decision, which stood and which meant that Zuma was now headed to jail.
There was no immediate indication of Zuma’s whereabouts, with some supporters saying he had “gone back underground, just like in the apartheid days”, but that he had “no fear” of going to jail.
On social media, one of Zuma’s daughters said she had spoken to her father and that he was in “high spirits” and had “no fear”.