Law Catches Up With Scandal-Tainted Ex-South African Leader Zuma

During his nine scandal-marred years in power, former South African President Jacob Zuma used his political clout and legal maneuvering to fend off graft charges and opposition efforts to impeach him.

The law finally caught up with him on Tuesday.

Law Catches Up With Scandal-Tainted Ex-South African Leader Zuma

The Constitutional Court sentenced Zuma to 15 months in jail for defying its order to testify before a judicial panel probing corruption during his tenure. The government estimates more than 500 billion rand ($35 billion) was stolen from state coffers under his watch, and dozens of witnesses placed him at the center of the looting spree.

Zuma has said he’s the victim of a political plot, maintains he’s done nothing wrong and accused the court and judicial panel of bias.

Political Consequences

“Never before has the authority and legitimacy of the Constitutional Court been subjected to the kinds of attacks that Mr. Zuma has elected to lodge against it,” acting Chief Justice Sisi Khampepe said in a ruling in Johannesburg. “The Constitutional Court can do nothing but conclude that Mr. Zuma is guilty of the crime of contempt of court.”

The judgment by the nation’s top tribunal can’t be appealed, and the 79-year-old was ordered to hand himself over to the authorities within five days to begin serving his sentence.

While Zuma has yet to respond to the ruling, and it’s unclear whether he will comply, it could have far-reaching political consequences.

Zuma has repeatedly challenged his successor Cyril Ramaphosa’s authority, questioning his policy decisions and criticizing him for failing to tackle racial inequality. His exit from the public stage should help Ramaphosa cement control over the deeply divided ruling African National Congress, and help appease an electorate that’s been clamoring for officials to be held accountable for endemic corruption.

Party Tensions

There’s also a potential downside for Ramaphosa: Zuma retains support within the ANC, especially in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, and his jailing could exacerbate tensions within the party’s ranks before municipal elections in October. Ramaphosa may also struggle to justify the incarceration of a man who was jailed for fighting apartheid, while numerous White leaders who championed the racist system remain free.

While Zuma was jailed for a decade for fighting apartheid, serving his sentence alongside Nelson Mandela, the former intelligence operative has never been held accountable for a slew of scandals since the ANC came to power in 1994.

He was fired as President Thabo Mbeki’s deputy in 2005 when allegations surfaced that Zuma’s friend and financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, tried to solicit a bribe for him.

Shaik was found guilty of fraud and corruption, and prosecutors later laid mirror charges against Zuma -- a case that was twice scrapped and reinstated. After losing several appeals, Zuma is facing trial on corruption, racketeering and money-laundering charges and could face an extended prison sentence if convicted again.

Rape Charge

Zuma had another brush with the law in 2006, when he was charged with raping an HIV-positive family friend who was half his age. He was acquitted, but was widely derided after he testified that his accuser wanted to have sex with him and he’d showered afterward to minimize the risk of infection.

In December 2007, Zuma staged a political comeback by enlisting the support of labor unions to wrest the ANC’s leadership from Mbeki. Zuma became president two years later and won a second term in 2014.

That year, the anti-graft ombudsman found Zuma unfairly benefited from a state-funded upgrade to his private home, and the Constitutional Court ruled that he broke his oath of office when he ignored a directive to pay back part of the money. He faced several opposition motions of no confidence in parliament, all of which ANC lawmakers rejected.

Another ombudsman’s report released in 2016 alleged that Zuma allowed wealthy businessmen, who were his friends and in business with his son, to influence cabinet appointments and the awarding of state contracts. Those findings have been backed up by dozens of witnesses who’ve appeared before the judicial panel.

Waning Fortunes

Zuma’s political fortunes began to wane in 2016, when the ANC lost control of several towns to opposition coalitions as its supporters deserted the party in droves in protest at his misrule.

His downfall was sealed in December 2017, when Ramaphosa won control of the ANC after fending off a challenge from Zuma’s favored successor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Two months later, the party forced Zuma to quit under threat of impeachment and appointed Ramaphosa in his stead -- a shakeup that foreshadowed his eventual conviction.

The Constitutional Court had little option but to jail Zuma, whose recalcitrance threated to undermine the rule of law and the administration of justice, Khampepe said.

“The vigor with which Mr. Zuma is peddling his disdain of the Constitutional Court and the judicial process carries the risk that he will inspire others to similarly defy court orders,” she said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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