Human Rights & Public Liberties

Human Rights & Public Liberties

Published on: 13 Jan, 2021

‘Not above the law’: Responses to former South African President Zuma receiving prison sentence

Published on: 29 June, 2021


Jacob Zuma [Reuters]

Jacob Zuma [Reuters]

On Tuesday former South African President Jacob Zuma has been given five days to hand himself over to the police after receiving a 15 month prison sentence by the South African Constitutional Court.

The judgment was read by Justice Sisi Khampepe. In a strongly worded judgment she said ‘There can be no doubt that Mr Zuma is in contempt of court.’ The Court convicted Zuma for failure to appear before the State Capture Commission, also known as the Zondo Commission which investigates state capture, fraud and corruption.

According to journalist Adriaan Basson the ‘ringing message‘ of the judgment was that Zuma is not above the law.

Legal experts and political commentators have praised the ruling.

Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC) said: ‘It is a very strong judgment and affirmation of the constitution and respect for the rule of law. The court expressed itself very clearly that it will not allow its integrity to be undermined by a political campaign against it, that it will not allow the undermining of the integrity of the courts.’

Speaking to Al Jazeera, political commentator and academic William Gumede said: ‘No other ruling was possible. If the courts were soft on Zuma it would have been the end of the credibility of the judiciary.’

Gumede continues: ‘Zuma went this route because he did not want to implicate himself and members of his family before the Zondo Commission. He thought he would get a suspended sentence at worst but he made a strategic error. This means that the game has changed and that impunity will no longer be tolerated. It will infuse the National Prosecuting Authority with new energy.’

According to Pierre de Vos, professor of law at the University of Cape Town, the decision is unprecedented. Speaking to Al Jazeera he said: ‘It is the first time that a South African court sends anyone to jail for civil contempt without giving the person the option to obey the court order and escape jail. It is also the first time a former president will go to jail after serving as president.’

Elmien du Plessis, professor of law at North West University said to Al Jazeera: ‘The judgement is an important vindication of our democracy. It shows that our democracy institutions work and that there are checks and balances. It is important to remember that this is not about whether he is guilty of corruption or not but rather about contempt of court for his failure to subject himself to lawful processes.’

Itumeleng Mahabane, chairperson of the Social Justice Initiative said to Al Jazeera: ‘The judgment comes at a time of growing hostility towards what appears to be political impunity and indifference to incompetence and corruption- the legitimacy of our democratic project is being threatened. The Court clearly understood the sensitivity of its decision and the pivotal moment we are in. It responded with scrupulous fortitude.’

Shortly after the judgment Zuma’s daughter, Duduzile Zuma, indicated on Twitter that her father will comply with the 15-month jail term and himself over to the Nkandla police station in KwaZulu-Natal province.

The ruling ANC said its national executive committee will be meeting this weekend and will reflect on the judgment.