Jacob Zuma on Thursday began a 15-month sentence for contempt of court, becoming South Africa’s first post-apartheid president to be jailed after a drama that campaigners said led to a victory for rule of law.
Zuma, 79, reported to prison early Thursday after mounting a last-ditch legal bid and stoking defiance among radical supporters who had rallied at his rural home.
His battle transfixed the country, placing a spotlight on the difficulty of impunity and tensions within the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
South Africa’s top court on Saints Peter and Paul slapped Zuma with a 15-month term for refusing to seem before a search into the corruption that entangled his nine years in power.
As police warned he faced arrest from midnight on Wednesday, Zuma handed himself into jail within the rural town of Estcourt in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal.
Many South Africans hailed his incarceration as a watershed moment for the young democracy.
Former corruption buster Thuli Madonsela hailed it as “a giant development to the country’s rule of law journey.” “But at a person’s level, it’s a tragic moment because it’s something that would are avoided. We didn’t need to have a 79-year-old former head of state and former liberation struggle stalwart attend jail simply because just he doesn’t want to be held to account,” she said.
The opposition Democratic Alliance said, “the law can’t be mocked and challenged with impunity. If the leader can attend prison, then so can anyone.” But, it cautioned, the contempt sentence didn’t address the broader corruption, fraud, and racketeering that proliferated under Zuma. The Mandela Foundation struck an identical note.
“His legal strategy has been one among obfuscation and delay, ultimately in an effort to render our judicial processes unintelligible,” it said.
“It is tempting to take Mr. Zuma’s arrest because the end of the road” instead of “merely another phase… during a long and fraught journey,” the inspiration warned.
Born into poverty, Zuma began as an uneducated herdboy who joined the ANC, becoming its intelligence chief in its anti-apartheid struggle.
His charisma and courage, including 10 years in jail on notorious Robben Island, placed him alongside Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and other liberation heroes.
In 2009, he became democratic South Africa’s third president, but it proved to be a tenure darkened by divisions and therefore the stench of corruption.
In 2018, Zuma was forced out by the ANC and replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader who became a tycoon after apartheid was finally dismantled 30 years ago.
Investigators say that under Zuma, billions of dollars in state assets were siphoned off by cronies.
But their efforts to urge Zuma to testify saw a wall. Critics labeled him the “Teflon president” for his perceived ability to sidestep justice.
Zuma had been given a deadline of Sunday night for turning himself in. Failing his surrender, police got three days — until midnight on Wednesday — to arrest him.
Zuma filed a last-ditch petition to overturn the arrest and pleaded with the Constitutional Court to rescind its sentence. The court will hear the plea on Monday.