Johannesburg – The South African Constitutional Court decision on June 29 to sentence ex-President Jacob Zuma to 15 months behind bars has set the country on edge, with people divided over the political implications the ruling will have.
Already, Mr Zuma’s supporters have organised marches in which they have labelled the court a vestige of apartheid and accused the former leader’s opponents of manipulating the judiciary for political reasons.
On the other hand, supporters of the judgement say it is a big step forward in fighting corruption, ending impunity and entrenching the rule of law.
Mr Zuma was found guilty of “egregious” and “aggravated” contempt of court for refusing to co-operate with an investigation into alleged corruption perpetrated from 2009 to 2018 when he was President.
He is revered by many as a liberation icon and reviled by just as many for allegedly facilitating and benefiting from corruption.
The conviction of Mr Zuma, who commands a following in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, has the potential of instigating civil unrest, warned political analyst Mr Zolani Mulilo.
He told The Southern Times, “The court might have done justice by convicting Zuma but what you and me know is that this judgement will to a larger extent be taken as a political attack. Zuma is not a small boy. He still has a huge following and I can see this ending in another judicial joke. He is a comrade who alongside fellow cadres in the ruling party fought for the freedom of South Africa. So, to his supporters, it is foolish for the courts to send a comrade to prison while a number of key figures from the racist white minority government remain free.”
Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane said she sided with the minority ConCourt judgment that disagreed with Mr Zuma’s imprisonment.
She said she believed everyone had a right to be heard and those rights ought to be protected by the Constitution.
Justices Leona Theron and Chris Jafta were in the minority.
“In my view, the Constitution does not allow private parties to obtain a punitive order of unsuspended committal in civil contempt proceedings, even when they are acting in the public interest,” Justice Theron stated.
Not everyone feels the same.
“No one is above the law and the world is watching to see if this time the former president is above the law or a law unto himself. The judgment fiercely makes the case for accountability over impunity. This groundbreaking judgement is a huge achievement for democracy. Remember, never before has the Constitutional Court passed a custodial sentence, still less on a former, democratically-elected president,” Advocate Karen Chinangwa told The Southern Times.
Ms Indigo Ellis of risk advisory firm Africa Matters told CNBC that, “The constitutional court judges have acted decisively, fully aware of the ex-president’s ability to influence his supporters to disregard the rule of law. This sentence almost feels like a reprisal for his unbounded attacks on the judiciary since leaving office in 2018.
“The wording of the judgment is crystal clear, it is unappealable, despite pleas from Zuma’s supporters. … We are beginning to witness the green shoots of change international investors have been waiting for since the feted ‘Ramaphoria’ fever dissipated.”
For almost two decades, Mr Zuma has masterfully deployed the “Stalingrad strategy”, tying up just about every legal point raised against him and making use of procedural and technical issues to stall court cases and investigations.
His supporters never thought their icon would be jailed. His opponents thought Mr Zuma would always find a way out.
Which is why the ConCourt judgement probably caught the nation and the international community by surprise.
ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe said the ruling party’s National Executive Committee would meet this weekend to ponder the implications of the judgment.
“You would recall that previously the national officials had met with the former president to reflect on his unwillingness to appear before the commission to deal with whatever issues he might have wanted to ventilate. So there was that engagement, the national executive committee itself has also reflected on this kind of development,” said Mabe.
The ANC tried to convince Mr Zuma to subject himself to the courts.
Opposition political parties like the DA, EFF, IFP and UDM have hailed the judgement.
But members of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association (MKMVA), through spokesperson Carl Niehaus, said their “patron-in-chief” was being unfairly targeted.
“The leadership of the MKMVA calls on every member, all members of the ANC, and every peace-loving and democratic South African to (defend Zuma),” Niehaus said.
He added that Mr Zuma “gave his all for the current national constitution to be adopted”. “For the Constitutional Court to be part of such a disgraceful situation is an utter shame,” he said.
The KwaZulu-Natal chairperson of the Radical Economic Transformation forces, Nkosentsha Shezi, added: “This justice system has been weaponised against President Jacob Zuma. The people’s beloved president has been dragged through a 15-month jail sentence. Every law in the book has been broken just to deal with the man. We are coming to pray for President Jacob Zuma and show solidarity with him and stand in one voice and ask the super powers to protect President Jacob Zuma.”
This has raised fears of clashes between Mr Zuma’s supporters and law enforcement agents should the former try and stop the latter from arresting the ex-president.
Police Minister Beki Cele and the police were instructed by the court to take all steps necessary and permissible at law to ensure Mr Zuma is incarcerated.
At the time of publishing, Minister Cele had not responded to enquiries from The Southern Times as to what contingencies were in place to deal with the potentially explosive situation.
Mr Zuma’s son, Edward, has vowed: “Whatever decision law enforcement agencies decide upon, they will have to pass by me. I will lay down my life for President Zuma. Nobody is going to take Zuma to jail before I die. We are in a situation of war here, we can’t be considering Covid-19 situations if it means we die, we will die.”
The Jacob Zuma Foundation has weighed in saying the investigation into the former president’s alleged corruption had “been transformed into a ‘slaughterhouse’ and a forum in which all kinds of unsubstantiated and defamatory allegations have been made against him”.
This was in contrast to his sister, Dudu, who said on Twitter that her father would report to the police for incarceration.
“Just spoke to my father. (He) is in high spirits and has no fear. We have a choice between serving our time in (Johannesburg) or Nkandla… of course we have chosen to be close to home. Lockdown or no lockdown we will (escort) you to serve your time,” she said.
Mr Zuma’s brother, Khanya, said his sibling had done no wrong.
“I want to go and ask what did my brother do? The Truth Commission was held after the apartheid era. It was headed by Desmond Tutu, the priest. Botha was called, he didn’t show up. They called FW de Klerk, he didn’t show up.
“I am saying both Botha and de Klerk were above the law. How do they say this to my brother? They must first go wake Botha and call De Klerk, then we’ll see if my brother did really break the law. If they haven’t brought these people up to answer, I, as a Zuma, say there is no such a law in South Africa.”
He went on, “The police will come here, but during the apartheid times, there weren’t any black police officers who carried guns. Whichever black police officer comes here must not be carrying… a gun, because they can’t carry guns for (Mr Zuma) who freed the country. If they’re carrying guns, they shouldn’t come here.”