A just society is predicated on the idea that everyone, from a street sweeper to a president, is equal before the law. We know this theoretically, but in practice, South Africans have never seen a truly high-profile politician sentenced to prison time.
Until this week, when former president Jacob Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court.
You’ll remember the background: he repeatedly refused to appear before the Zondo Commission to answer for his clearly pivotal role in enabling the plunder of our state’s resources. Zuma, by the way, didn’t even bother showing up to the ConCourt hearings about not showing up to the Zondo Commission!
Reading out Tuesday’s main judgment, a beautiful piece of writing in its own right, acting Chief Justice Sisi Khampepe said: “Never before has the judicial process been so threatened.” Did we mention this is the first time a woman is in the role of Chief Justice? Zuma obviously did, because he promptly called her “emotional and angry”. 🙄
The judgment is a win for our civil society and judiciary, of course – but also for the country at large. Less stable democracies would see civil war or authoritarian actions from their ruling parties before such accountability was allowed to occur.
So what happens next? Zuma must report to either the Nkandla or Johannesburg central police stations by Monday so the station commander can ensure that he is committed to a correctional facility. If he doesn’t, the minister of police and the national commissioner of police must ensure he is arrested. Police Minister Bheki Cele has said the police will do their part.
Zuma’s daughter Duduzile says he is willing to face his sentence while his son Edward and a handful of more radical supporters say they will oppose it. But these voices are in the minority and there is no way to appeal this sentence.
Experts say Zuma will not be treated like a hardened criminal given his status and the nature of the crime, and may even be sent to the medical wing given his age and the risk of Covid. He would be eligible for parole in less than four months. But still: seeing him spend any time in prison for clearly disobeying the law sends a clear – and welcome – signal. No one is above the law.
Plus when he gets out he has that decades-in-the-making arms deal trial to look forward to. The master of delaying tactics has run out of road.