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The big story: How Zuma went to prison

Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma woke up in prison. 

That’s right, dear reader. After a game of chicken with the state that went down to the wire, Zuma finally presented himself for arrest just before the police’s deadline to arrest him at midnight 7 July , after he failed to turn himself in by midnight on Sunday. Dithering Police Minister Bheki Cele, a former Zuma ally, faced possible arrest himself if he didn’t obey the court’s instruction. (But he’s SO quick to act on anyone drinking during lockdown. 🙄) Last night, hundreds of police from different units descended on the Nkandla area; Zuma supporters threatened to fight them off. Many were worried about the real possibility of bloodshed but in the end, just as Zuma resigned as president in 2018 when he realised the ANC would force him out, he caved and was taken at high speed from his compound by motorcade, off to Estcourt Correctional Centre. It was a victory for police, who made their intentions clear without having to deal with the politically explosive business of taking on Zuma’s supporters. 

Now, the legal details around this arrest are dizzying. But we reckon it’s important to have a basic grasp of it so you can understand what happens next. 

Zuma was first sentenced to prison by the Constitutional Court on 29 June 2021. This was because he refused to continue his evidence before the Zondo Commission into state capture. 

Zuma’s team tried two separate legal tactics to keep him out of jail. Both are still ongoing:

  1. He asked the ConCourt for a “recission” of its sentence. This isn’t the same as an appeal as one can’t appeal ConCourt rulings, but rather an argument to set aside the judgment. His team is saying he didn’t have money to defend himself the first time around. Lol. He had the money for numerous other legal delaying tactics, so we’re not buying that excuse. The ConCourt is hearing that on 12 July 2021. 
  1. His team simultaneously asked the High Court in Pietermaritzburg to “stay” or stop the police from arresting him until the ConCourt made its decision. That hearing was live streamed on 6 July 2021 and was very entertaining, if only to watch Zuma’s advocate, who happens to be the EFF’s Dali Mpofu, go round in circles for hours before an unimpressed judge while his opponent, the legally brilliant advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, neatly laid out that the court had no jurisdiction to make such a decision. That judge reserved his judgment till 9 July, so expect to hear what he says – though it’s a bit of a moot point now that Zuma is in jail. 

After Monday we will hear what the ConCourt says but experts think it’s unlikely the justices will change their minds. If they do, Zuma would have at least spent six nights in prison. If they don’t, he will only be eligible for parole after serving between three and four months. His separate arms deal corruption trial is also set to continue later this month.

But the real story here is what this momentous arrest means for the country. Very few former heads of state have gone to prison while their party is still in power. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s almost pathological insistence on process has paid off. He could have made “political” decisions like former president Thabo Mbeki and simply ousted his enemies, but instead ensured people like Ace Magashule and Zuma were held accountable, setting a precedent for others in the ANC who have long treated the law like something that doesn’t apply to themselves. In short, it’s been an incredible week for accountability. 

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 08 July 2021. Sign up to receive our weekly updates.