It would be pertinent to recall Thomas Fuller’s words cited by Lord Denning more than four decades ago ~ “Be ye never so high, the law is above you”. So indeed it was in South Africa on Tuesday when it scripted history. In an unprecedented predicament for a former Head of State, the ebullient Jacob Zuma has been found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to 15 months in prison for defying a court order to appear before an inquiry probing wide-ranging allegations of corruption during his tenure in Johannesburg’s presidential palace from 2009 to 2018.
Zuma was not in court for the ruling and has been ordered to hand himself over within five days to a police station. He has his back to the wall not the least because if he fails to turn himself in within five days, South Africa’s police minister and the police commissioner have been ordered to take him into custody.
This is the first time in South Africa’s history that a former President has been sentenced to prison. Tuesday’s verdict has been greeted with profound endorsement by the populace.
“Finally, Zuma will find himself where he belongs ~ behind bars,” said opposition politician Herman Mashaba in reaction to the sentence.
“This is indeed a victory for all South Africans who have become fed up with those who have looted our country with impunity,” said Mashaba, former mayor of Johannesburg and leader of the ActionSA party.
The judgment is equally a victory for the rule of law in South Africa, once again serving to highlight the independence of the nation’s judiciary, indeed the pivot of the country’s democracy.
At the end of the day, Zuma appears to have met his nemesis on the judiciary’s charge of contempt, one that has overshadowed the allegation of corruption. South Africa’s apex court, the Constitutional Court, ruled that Zuma defied an order by the country’s highest court by refusing to cooperate with the commission of inquiry, which is chaired by deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo.
“The Constitutional Court holds that there can be no doubt that Zuma is in contempt of court. He was served with the order and it is impossible to conclude anything other than that he was unequivocally aware of what it required of him,” said acting chief justice Sisi Khampepe.
She added that in determining the jail sentence for Zuma, the court found it impossible to conclude that he would comply with any other order. The former President had expressed his unwillingness to appear before the commission, which has so far heard evidence directly implicating him in wrongdoing.
Additionally, Zuma is standing trial to face charges related to bribes that he allegedly received during South Africa’s 1999 arms procurement deal. The nation has been roiled by corruption at the helm coupled with the steadfast reluctance of the accused to face the court. South Africa bears witness to a slide from Nelson Mandela to Jacob Zuma.