On Tuesday morning, 29 June 2021, The Constitutional Court of South Africa sentenced former President Jacob Zuma to 15 months’ imprisonment. Zuma, 79, was found to be in contempt of court for failing to obey a court order to testify at a judicial commission that is investigating allegations of corruption during his term as South Africa’s president from 2009 to 2018. The ground-breaking judgement was handed down by Acting Chief Justice Sisi Khampepe. The Constitutional Court ordered The former president to submit himself to Nkandla Police Station or the Johannesburg Central Police Station in five days.
The ex-president is currently imprisoned in the Estcourt Correctional Centre after voluntarily surrendered himself on 7 July 2021, 40 minutes before the midnight deadline for the police to hand him over to prison officials. The Constitutional Court rejected Zuma’s request to postpone his current prison term a day after he handed himself over to police to begin a 15-month sentence.
The seminal judgement of the Constitutional Court referred broadly to the “calculated and insidious” attacks on the rule of law by the former president. It is alleged that for almost two decades, Zuma has benefited from the strength of South Africa’s rule of law with his so-called “Stalingrad strategy” of taking every legal point and appealing every judgment against him. This judgement sends a clear message throughout the country that contempt of court need not be tolerated, as it undermines the independence and authority of our courts and, ultimately, constitutional democracy itself.
The destruction of judicial independence is a crucial step in the construction of an autocracy. Losing an independent judiciary makes it impossible to hold leaders to account for corruption or abuse of power. Thus the survival of democracy depends on an independent judiciary. Section 165 of the South Africa Constitution oblige everyone to assist and protect the courts to ensure their independence, dignity and effectiveness. In order for the constitutional democracy to remain functional, hold the Constitution supreme and deliver on the rights we are all guaranteed, the judiciary needs to remain independent, unencumbered in its work and have its decisions respected.
The judgement has been celebrated by the South African Human rights Commission since respect for the rule of law and court decisions are crucial for the protection and promotion of human rights. For the Commission to be truly effective in executing its constitutional mandate, set out in section 184 to protect, promote, and monitor and assess the observance of human rights, the court’s decision needs to be respected by everyone.
This is the first time the Constitutional Court passed a custodial sentence, still less on a former democratically elected president. The judgment fiercely makes a case for accountability over impunity. This breakpoint judgement strengthens South Africa democracy by demonstrating that no person, not even a former Head of State, is above the law and that the principle that everyone is equal before the law holds true in the country.
Zuma, whose tenure as president was marked by scandal and mismanagement, is nevertheless a populist figure deeply beloved in some corners, particularly among Zulus in his home province, KwaZulu-Natal. Zuma’s supporters gathered and riots to oppose his arrest before he surrendered to police, followed by looting and violence erupted after his jailing. The protesters have mainly been concentrated in KwaZulu-Natal, with some spilling into the central commercial city of Johannesburg. Many argued that Mr Zuma’s opponents within the African National Congress had sought to use the courts to prevent him from retaking control of the party from his former deputy and the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa.
The violence and looting intensified on Monday 12 July 2021 as the Constitutional Court was virtual hearing Zuma’s application to review its landmark decision to jail Zuma for contempt of court. On the hearing, Zuma’s counsel asked the constitutional court to rescind his jail term, citing a rule that judgments can be reconsidered if made in the absence of the affected person or containing a patent error. However, Legal experts establish that Zuma’s chances of success the appeal to the Constitution Court to reverse the jail sentence are slim.
Crowds looting and setting alight shopping centres clashed with police; up to 72 people have been killed so far. The military has been deployed to help police overstretched since the unrest began last week. 12 individuals suspected of provoking the riots have been identified, and a total of 1,234 people had been arrested to date. Poverty-stricken levels and unemployment standing at a record tall of 32.6% among the employees and higher at 46.3% among youthful individuals are seen as the time bombs that have detonated. Numerous inhabitants in affected zones have remained at home, and a few have developed “guard squads” to safeguard their community and businesses as plundering and burning proceeds. The distress is considered the most significant security challenge that Ramaphosa has confronted since he got to be president in 2018 after removing Zuma. It is bound to compound the financial crisis, already hit by the covid 19 inflictions, given the scale of devastation.
The sentencing of the former president has made South Africa set an example for constitutional democracies across Africa. In fact, it carries many critical political lessons for the international community, including for long-standing constitutional democracies countries.
Dr. Norah Msuya is a researcher and academician. She writes in her personal capacity.