The former South African president, Jacob Zuma, was on Tuesday sentenced to prison for 15 months after he was found guilty of contempt of court by the Constitutional Court.
The Acting Deputy Chief Justice, Sisi Khampepe, in delivering the verdict, emphasised the extraordinary attacks by Mr Zuma on the legitimacy of the Constitutional Court.
“Never before has the authority and legitimacy of the Constitutional Court been subjected (to) these kinds of attacks,” the judge said.
“If his conduct is met with impunity, he will do significant damage to the rule of law,” the judge ruled.
Led by the deputy chief justice, Raymond Zondo, a corruption inquiry Mr Zuma himself began in 2018 had indicted many business tycoons, state-owned companies and government departments of corruption.
In its far-reaching mandate to examine allegations of high-level graft during Mr Zuma’s presidency from 2009 to 2018, the commission has interrogated more than 250 witnesses since February, one of whom could have been Mr Zuma, but he shunned the invitation, in spite of court orders.
The commission estimates that more than 500 billion rand (about $35 billion) was stolen from the Southern African nation’s coffers under Mr Zuma’s watch.
Mr Zuma argued that he was not legally obliged to appear before the panel, adding that Justice Zondo had a personal vendetta against him.
Pressed by the resolve to make the former president – who had made one appearance before he refused to appear subsequently – appear before it, the inquiry commission sought the intervention of the Constitutional Court.
In her ruling on Tuesday, Justice Khampepe dismissed Mr Zuma’s argument for not appearing before the panel as baseless.
She ruled that it amounted to contempt of the court before sentencing Mr Zuma – who was not present at Tuesday’s hearing – to 15 months of jail term.
The former president has five days to present himself to the authorities.
In the event that Mr Zuma fails to do this, the minister of police and the national police commissioner must “take all steps that are necessary” to ensure he is taken into custody to serve his term, Ms Khampepe said.
The sentencing is a boost to President Cyril Ramaphosa, formerly Mr Zuma’s deputy, who has vowed to root out corruption and patronage within the ruling ANC. But the sentencing could also potentially split the party especially among the faction loyal to Mr Zuma.
Despite his controversial posturing in South Africa, Mr Zuma still has a considerable popularity back home. There are fears that his sentencing might trigger street protests by sympathizers and supporters.
A bruising internal battle within the ANC leadership in 2017 had humiliated Mr Zuma out of office as he was forced to step down as president, paving way for Mr Ramaphosa to head Africa’s second-largest economy.
No love has been lost between the two men since then.
After this conviction, Mr Zuma, a disciple of Nelson Mandela, still has a huge legal battle to fight.
His eight years as president was dogged by corruption allegations, and he is now being prosecuted on charges of racketeering, corruption, fraud and money laundering after being accused of taking bribes from a $5 billion arms deal with a French arms manufacturer when he was deputy president in 1999.
The case was stalled earlier this year after which it was postponed until July.