Ex-South Africa President Jacob Zuma ordered to serve 15-month prison sentence

South African President Jacob Zuma speaks in Johannesburg, South Africa, on December 15, 2017, on the eve of the ANC’s 54th National Conference.

Wikus de Wet | AFP | Getty Images

South Africa’s Constitutional Court has sentenced former President Jacob Zuma to 15 months in prison for contempt of court.

Zuma was found guilty by the country’s highest court after he defied its order to appear at a corruption inquiry centered on his time in power between 2009 and 2018.

The inquiry, led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, is examining high-level corruption during Zuma’s time in office. Having long denied wrongdoing, the 79-year-old former president has thus far refused to cooperate, and failed to appear to testify before a judicial panel in February.

He has now been given five days to present himself to police in order to be arrested.

Zuma faces a litany of legal troubles, having also pleaded not guilty last month in a separate corruption trial focused on an arms deal in 1999 when he was deputy president.

He has continued to insist that all charges are the product of a political witch hunt.

Zuma was ousted in 2018 following internal discord among the ruling African National Congress (ANC), against a backdrop of public outrage over alleged corruption and mismanagement of state resources.

Zondo’s inquiry was established after an ombudsman report called for an investigation into possible improper contact between senior members of Zuma’s former administration and three wealthy businessmen — the Gupta brothers —  all of whom have denied wrongdoing. The Guptas fled South Africa upon Zuma’s ousting.

His successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa, has made a concerted effort to stamp out corruption within the government and his own ANC party, furthering a rift between his supporters and a core of Zuma loyalists. Economists broadly agree that the pilfering of state resources in recent decades has had a negative impact on the nation’s economy, state-owned enterprises and public services.

‘A boon for judicial independence’

Indigo Ellis, associate director at strategic risk advisory firm Africa Matters, told CNBC on Tuesday that Zuma’s sentencing Tuesday was “a boon for judicial independence in South Africa,” reinforcing the resilience of the judiciary.

“The constitutional court judges have acted decisively, fully aware of the ex-president’s ability to influence his supporters to disregard the rule of law. This sentence almost feels like a reprisal for his unbounded attacks on the judiciary since leaving office in 2018,” Ellis added.

She said Zuma will likely exhaust his legal options to avoid serving a custodial sentence, but added: “The wording of the judgment is crystal clear, it is unappealable, despite pleas from Zuma’s supporters. … We are beginning to witness the green shoots of change international investors have been waiting for since the feted ‘Ramaphoria’ fever dissipated.”

The sentencing does not alleviate the pressure on Ramaphosa, however, and Ellis suggested it is likely to make his job harder by further entrenching the factionalism at the heart of the ANC.

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