Jacob Zuma, former South African president, arrested
NKANDLA, South Africa – Jacob Zuma, the former president of South Africa, was arrested on Wednesday to begin serving a 15-month prison sentence, crowning a staggering fall for a once-praised freedom fighter who fought the apartheid regime alongside Nelson Mandela.
The Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial body, ordered Zuma’s jail last month after finding him in contempt for failing to appear before a commission of inquiry into the corruption charges that marred his tenure as leader of the country from 2009 to 2018.
Under Mr Zuma, who was forced to resign, the extent of the corruption of cronies within the ruling African National Congress Party became clear, turning a once-heralded liberation movement into a vehicle of personal enrichment for many officials. Corruption has led to the gutting of the country’s tax agency, business contracts, and downed rivals in a race for wealth and power.
Mr. Zuma, 79 years old, voluntarily surrendered Wednesday, 40 minutes before midnight for the police to hand him over to the prison authorities. He was driven from his compound in a long convoy of cars and taken into custody shortly after, police said. The arrest follows a week of tension on the brink during which the former president and his allies denounced the High Court ruling, suggesting, without evidence, that he was the victim of a conspiracy.
The comments stirred up supporters of Mr. Zuma, who posted themselves by the hundreds outside his rural farm in Nkandla on Sunday and said police would have to kill them if they wanted to reach the former president. But there was little such resistance Wednesday night, and only the lights from reporters’ cameras illuminated the dark street outside the complex.
While much of the country hailed the court ruling as an affirmation of South Africa’s democratic system and the principle that no one is above the law, last week’s stalemate has revealed deep divisions in this young democracy and within the African National Congress, or ANC, the liberation party that has ruled the country since the fall of apartheid in 1994.
Mr. Zuma, whose presidential term has been marred by scandal and mismanagement, is nonetheless a deeply beloved populist figure in some corners, especially among the Zulus in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. His loyalists gathered on Sunday outside his compound, a series of thatched-roof buildings sitting on a slope – a site that became associated with greed when as president he was accused of using the money taxpayers for improvements.
Many have argued that Zuma’s opponents in the African National Congress have sought to use the courts to prevent him from regaining control of the party from his former deputy and current chairman, Cyril Ramaphosa.
South Africa’s image as a leader on the African continent – honed by Mr. Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki – has plunged under Mr. Zuma’s reign. Mr Zuma, who had no formal education, was seen as a champion of struggling South Africans in rural areas and townships.
But he was dogged by corruption charges even before he was elected, and he left the country with a stagnant economy, high unemployment and even deeper mired in the extreme inequalities that preceded his reign.
The government now alleges that tens of billions of dollars were embezzled from state coffers during Mr. Zuma’s tenure, which it denies.
At a rally on Sunday afternoon, Mr. Zuma stood on a crowded stage to address his supporters, who huddled shoulder to shoulder, clinging to his every word. They laughed at his jokes and chanted wrestling songs with him. They held up signs with messages like “We demand our land which was stolen 573 years ago” and “We refuse to be ruled by apartheid spies. “
“I fought for freedom,” Zuma told the crowd. “I was fighting for these same rights. No one will take away my rights. Even the dead I fought against in the liberation struggle will turn in their graves.
At a press conference on Sunday evening, Zuma argued that he had been sentenced without trial and compared his situation to the struggle against apartheid.
“I have a duty and an obligation to ensure that the dignity and respect for our judicial system are not compromised by sentences which remind our people of the apartheid era,” he said. declared.
Hours after appearing on a crowded stage in front of legions of supporters, often without a mask, Mr. Zuma also told the media that sending someone his age to prison in the event of a pandemic “is tantamount to sentencing me to death ”.
While he said his supporters must use peaceful means to protest on his behalf, he later said he could not be held responsible for how they reacted.
Fearing the situation could escalate, African National Congress leaders sent party officials to Zuma’s home ahead of the deadline to help keep calm and find a solution. While the arrest of the former president could worsen the fractures within the party, senior leaders said they believe it will not tear the organization apart. Past conflicts have led to small separatist parties, but nothing to undermine the dominance of the African National Congress.
Still, concerns about what was going on outside Mr. Zuma’s home were significant. In a statement, the party said the situation “did not represent a popular uprising, but was conceived within the ranks of the ANC.”
Some ANC leaders were concerned about a fomenting of Zulu nationalism in a country that fought to maintain ethnic divisions in the past, when the apartheid regime used them to help maintain the dominance of the white minority. In its statement, the African National Congress said: “The maintenance of our democracy requires that we constantly ensure the affirmation of the values of non-racism and the rejection of any manifestation of ethnic chauvinism. “
Mr. Zuma’s prison sentence stems from his refusal to testify before the corruption commission headed by Judge Raymond Zondo, deputy head of the Constitutional Court. Mr Zuma defied an order in January and launched a scathing public criticism of the justice system.
He then ignored several requests from the Constitutional Court to defend his refusal to testify. Mr Zuma said he would have testified before the corruption panel if Judge Zondo had recused himself because he felt the justice was biased against him.
Announcing the court’s decision last month to send Mr. Zuma to prison, Judge Sisi Khampepe, the then acting chief, said the former president had carried out “a series of direct attacks” against the judiciary “as well as calculated and insidious efforts” to “eat away at its legitimacy and its authority”.
“If, with impunity, the litigants are allowed to decide which orders they wish to obey and which they choose to ignore, our Constitution is not worth the paper on which it is written”, she declared, reading a decision that the court supported 7 to 2.
A few days later, Mr. Zuma filed a petition asking the court to consider rescinding his jail order. He also filed a petition with a lower court asking him to prevent police from arresting him until after a Constitutional Court hearing on Monday to rule on his quashing petition.
In a lower court hearing this week, Mr. Zuma’s attorney doubled down on his client’s argument that it was unfair that he was sentenced to prison without a trial. The lawyer, Dali Mpofu, also suggested that there could be civil unrest if Mr. Zuma was sent to prison, referring to a massacre in 2012 in which police shot dead 34 striking minors in the town of Marikana.
During the hearing, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, an attorney for the commission, said Mr. Zuma should be arrested for repeatedly defying justice.
“We are dealing with a repetitive and recalcitrant offender in the form of Mr. Zuma,” said Mr. Ngcukaitobi.