Former president of South Africa Jacob Zuma appeared on Saturday to have won a reprieve from imminent imprisonment on contempt of court charges after the country’s most senior judges agreed to hear his challenge to a 15-month jail sentence handed down last week.
Police were ordered to arrest the 79-year-old by the supreme court if he did not surrender to authorities by Sunday after he failed to appear before a corruption inquiry earlier this year.
Mr Zuma was ousted as president amid multiple graft scandals in 2018 after nine years in power and has consistently refused to co-operate with judges investigating wrongdoing during his rule.
In recent days, the veteran politician has sought to rally political support, particularly in his stronghold of KwaZulu-Natal province where he appeared briefly in public on Saturday, but his efforts to spark any broader protests at his impending arrest have so far failed.
A small crowd gathered outside Mr Zuma’s homestead of Nkandla. Supporters included about two dozen women who said they had travelled more than 300km overnight from the neighbouring Eastern Cape province.
“We support Zuma and we want to know what is going to happen with him, which is why we are here,” said 43-year-old Cecilia Nongce.
“We love Nxamalala ,” she said in Zulu, referring to Mr Zuma by his traditional clan name, adding that they hoped he would come out to speak to them.
A group of other supporters arrived in two mini-buses waving ANC flags and wearing white T-shirts with the inscription “wenzeni uZuma”, Zulu for “What has Zuma done?”
‘No new evidence’
Analysts in South Africa were surprised by 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,” said Ralph Mathekga, an author and political commentator.
In its judgment last week, the South African supreme court noted that the former president had repeatedly reiterated that he would rather be imprisoned than to co-operate “with the corruption inquiry”.
Mr Zuma then submitted a 30-page statement, accusing judges of “exasperation” and suggesting that the supreme court “reassess whether it has acted within the constitution”.
The statement also said that Mr Zuma’s health would be at risk in prison because he would not be able to receive the care that he needs and might catch Covid-19.
The contempt of court charges related to Zuma’s consistent failure to appear at the corruption inquiry led by South Africa’s deputy chief justice, Raymond Zondo, in February.
Scores of witnesses have described what appears to have been widespread corruption and misadministration under Mr Zuma’s rule, but the former president has testified only once, in July 2019, before staging a walkout days later. He denies all wrongdoing. – Guardian