The investigation into Jacob Zuma’s alleged corruption took an unexpected turn in February, after the former South African president and African National Congress (ANC) leader was warned he could face up to two years in prison for contempt of court.
The former commander of the ANC armed-wing during Apartheid, Zuma, who went on to rule South Africa between 2009 and 2018, has been accused of corruption over his links to the Gupta Brothers, three India-born businessmen sanctioned by the US Treasury over their opaque financial dealings with Zuma’s South Africa.
Zuma’s financial involvement with the Guptas led to his downfall in the ANC and has seen the ex-president forced to appear before an anti-graft commission.
Crucially for the ruling party, Zuma has refused to work with the corruption enquiry, commonly referred to as the Zondo Commission, and now faces possible sanctions.
The investigation is being presided over by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, a former Constitutional Court judge tasked with investigating allegations of ‘state capture’ – government contracts awarded by corruption.
The 355-page charge, compiled in 2016, looks into ‘alleged improper and unethical conduct by the president and other state functionaries’ and the Gupta Brothers’ involvement in the removal and appointment ‘of ministers and directors of state-owned entities’.
It alleges that the agreement led to the ‘improper and possibly corrupt award of state contracts and benefits to the Gupta family’s businesses’.
It added that the investigation should ‘look into the president’s conduct in relation to the alleged corrupt offers’ and the Gupta family’s involvement in the appointment of cabinet ministers and directors of state-owned entities.
The allegations against Zuma – 40 at last count – range from whether or not he received regular monthly payments from the State Security Agency to the nature of his direct involvement in state entities engaged in ‘vastly corrupt activities’.
Zuma has used several manoeuvres to avoid appearing at the Zondo Commission, including claiming that Judge Zondo should recuse himself because he had a personal relationship with the former president.
More controversially, Zuma tried to ‘excuse’ himself entirely from the proceedings, and in November last year, walked out without the chairperson’s permission.
This led to the case being taken to the Constitutional Court, which ruled unanimously that Zuma must appear at the Zondo Commission.
But while the former ANC leader and his legal team may have perfected the so-called ‘Stalingrad defence’ – dragging out legal proceedings by appealing every ruling – the delaying tactics are not yielding the results they hoped for.
The Commission filed papers calling for Zuma to serve two years in jail for these ‘multiple’ acts of contempt, leaving the former anti-Apartheid fighter with just one card left to play – outright defiance.
He stated he was ready to go to jail rather than give evidence.
And he has a substantial cohort within the ANC who will stand by him if this happens.
For the country, Zuma’s actions pose a considerable threat to the rule of law.
For the ANC, it could be the final straw that will see the collapse of the liberation party and even define its legacy.
The Commission has, again, provided a serious amount of wiggle room for the accused.
Inquiry Secretary Professor Itumeleng Mosala has suggested that the court suspend the two-year sentence if – and it’s a big if – Zuma appears and gives evidence. He has set a deadline for March 31.
But with the hard-left Economic Freedom Fighters buoyed by the government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic – South Africa’s economy has been one of the continent’s hardest hit – a further schism in the ruling party may prove fatal for the ANC.