Former President Jacob Zuma, whose jailing this month led to South Africa’s worst outbreak of violence in years, was granted compassionate leave to attend the funeral of his younger brother on Thursday.
He was back in prison by the afternoon, the government said.
Zuma, wearing a dark suit and white shirt, was flanked by family members as he walked from his homestead to his brother’s neighbouring property in Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal province, a Reuters journalist said.
Soldiers patrolled nearby and military and police vehicles were stationed along the road.
Zuma has been incarcerated at Estcourt prison since handing himself over on July 7 to serve a 15-month sentence for contempt of court. The prison is in Kwa-Zulu Natal.
The former president was granted compassionate leave as he was considered a short-term, low-risk inmate, the department of correctional services said in a statement.
Zuma was not required to wear an offenders’ uniform outside prison walls, it said.
“He was accompanied by correctional officers supported by law enforcement agencies. And we are to confirm that he has returned back to the Estcourt correctional facility as we speak,” cabinet minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni told a news conference on Thursday afternoon.
Inmates in South Africa are usually allowed to attend relatives’ funerals – a right denied to the country’s first Black President Nelson Mandela when he was in jail for fighting the apartheid regime.
Zuma’s brother died aged 77 after a long illness, according to local media.
Unrest over Zuma jailing
Sporadic pro-Zuma protests broke out when Zuma handed himself over and escalated into riots involving looting and arson that President Cyril Ramaphosa has described as an “insurrection”.
The unrest swept across Kwa-Zulu Natal and the country’s economic heartland province of Gauteng, killing 276 people and destroying hundreds of businesses.
Thousands of soldiers were deployed to help quell the violence, among the worst since the ruling African National Congress (ANC) won South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 to replace white minority rule.
Zuma’s long-running corruption trial is expected to resume on August 10, despite his request to have the case postponed due to the pandemic and recent unrest.
He faces 16 charges of fraud, corruption and racketeering, and has entered a not guilty plea.
He retains a fervent support base, both within the ANC and among the general public.