Former president Jacob Zuma beat the odds this week, winning a last minute review of his sentence of 15 months on serious corruption charges when he was president.
With hours to spare, senior judges suspended his immediate lock-up and agreed to “reconsider and rescind” a finding of guilty in multiple graft scandals that took place over his nine years in power. The former president had failed to appear at a pre-trial hearing on multiple charges related to a multi-billion dollar arms deal. He stepped down under pressure from the ANC in February 2018.
Zuma, age 79, and his counsel asked the court to put off the sentence citing poor legal advice, ill health, and financial constraints because his state-sponsored legal fees were halted.
Observers in South Africa expressed surprise at the Supreme Court’s decision to consider the former president’s challenge to its own decision.
“If Zuma goes to prison, we can say we have the rule of law in South Africa. If he doesn’t, then we don’t. There is no new evidence, so this means the system is being bent to fit the politics and people everywhere will be very disappointed by that,” Ralph Mathekga, a leading political analyst told a news outlet.
Similarly, South Africa’s deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo said the failure of the ex-president to respond to the court would send the message that people can ignore or disregard summons and orders of courts with impunity …[and] “there will be very little that will be left of our democracy.”
The South African Supreme Court in its own message noted that the former president had “repeatedly reiterated that he would rather be imprisoned than to cooperate with the corruption inquiry.”
Zuma and other officials are alleged to have accepted bribes from five European arms manufacturers to influence the choice of weaponry bought in the deal.
In March 2018––a month after he resigned as president––national prosecutors decided Zuma was liable to face prosecution on 783 counts of corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering charges relating to the arms deal.
In another notorious case, South Africa’s graft watchdog found Zuma to have “benefited unduly” from so-called security upgrades to his rural Nkandla residence in KwaZulu-Natal province, paid for with taxpayers’ money. The upgrades included a swimming pool––which was described as a fire-fighting facility––as well as a cattle enclosure, an amphitheater and a visitors’ center.
Meanwhile, thousands of his supporters, mainly members of the African National Congress’s Umkhonto Wesizwe military wing, have been camped outside his home in Kwa-Zulu Natal province for weeks.
“They can give Zuma 15 months … or 100 months. He’s not going to serve even one day or one minute of that,” his son Edward Zuma told the news agency Reuters at the gathering. “They would have to kill me before they put their hands on him.”