South Africa's Constitutional Court has sentenced former President Jacob Zuma to fifteen months in prison for defying a court order to appear before the Zondo Commission, which is investigating charges of corruption during Zuma’s 2009-2018 presidency. As the court is the highest in the land, Zuma cannot appeal. Nine justices ruled. All agreed that Zuma was guilty; seven favored imprisonment, while two favored a suspended sentence. This is the first time a former chief of state in South Africa has been sentenced to prison. Zuma has five days to turn himself in to the authorities in Johannesburg or Nkandla, his home in KwaZulu-Natal. If he fails to do so, the court has ordered the commissioner of police to arrest him within three days.
Holding accountable a former chief of state through a domestic legal and judicial process in Africa appears to be without precedent. Some chiefs of state have been toppled through coups; others removed from office have been tried by international tribunals. In Zuma's case, he was tried and convicted under South African law and by the South African judicial system through an utterly transparent process. Zuma's conviction underscores that South Africa has the continent's strongest culture of the rule of law and independence of the judiciary, both of which underpin a strong democratic trajectory.
Zuma retains political support, especially in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. There could be some concern that his supporters might demonstrate or even try to block his arrest. However, South Africa is under a strict lockdown because of the resurgence of COVID-19, making it difficult to assemble a mob.
In 2016, the Public Protector—an office established by the constitution to investigate and remedy improper behavior by government officials—recommended the establishment of a commission to consider allegations of corruption by the Zuma presidency. With no choice, Zuma established the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. Zuma has persistently stonewalled the work of the commission and refused to appear before it, even when the court ordered him to do so. That is the immediate background to the most recent ruling.
President Cyril Ramaphosa defeated Zuma for the leadership of the governing African National Congress and subsequently for the presidency of South Africa in part because Zuma and his administration were seen as corrupt. But, Zuma, a populist in style, has retained significant support in the country and the party, especially among the poor and marginalized and among his fellow Zulus, the largest ethnic group in the country. Zuma and his supporters have sought to thwart Ramaphosa's efforts at state reform. Zuma's conviction and jailing by an independent judiciary is likely to strengthen Ramaphosa's hand as he goes about implementing reforms.
The bottom line, however, is that Zuma's conviction and jailing provides a powerful example to other African states of holding their rulers to account.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.