Jacob Zuma, former South African president, turned himself in to police on Wednesday to begin 15 months in jail for contempt of court, the culmination of a long legal drama seen as a test of the country’s ability to enforce the rule of law.
Police spokesperson Lirandzu Themba confirmed in a statement that Zuma, who was president from 2009 – 2018, was in police custody, in compliance with last week’s Constitutional Court ruling.
The court sentenced Zuma to 15 months in prison for defying an order in February to give evidence at an inquiry examining corruption during the nine years that he was president. The inquiry is led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. The former president maintains that he is the victim of a political witchhunt and that Zondo is biased against him.
Police had signalled they would arrest Zuma by the end of Wednesday if he failed to appear at a police station. Hundreds of his supporters, some of them armed with guns, spears and shields, had gathered nearby at his rural homestead in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province, to try to prevent his arrest.
But in the end, the 79-year-old Zuma decided to go quietly.
A convoy of cars believed to be carrying Zuma drove out of his homestead at high speed about 40 minutes before the cut-off time for him to give himself up.
“Please be advised that (ex) President Zuma has decided to comply with the incarceration order,” his foundation tweeted, marking the first time Zuma’s camp had shown any willingness to cooperate with the court.
“He is on his way to hand himself into a Correctional Services Facility in KZN,” it added, just minutes before the deadline expired.
Dear South Africans and the World.
Please be advised that President Zuma has decided to comply with the incarceration order.
He is on his way to hand himself into a Correctional Services Facility in KZN.
A full statement will be issued in due course.#WenzenuZuma
— JGZuma Foundation (Official) (@JGZ_Foundation) July 7, 2021
Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting in the early hours of Thursday from the correctional facility in Estcourt, said: “He has now handed himself in, he’s being processed and it’s likely this is where he is going to spend at least the first few days of his sentence.
“Because once that processing is completed, authorities determine the most suitable correctional facility or accommodation for the former president given his age and his health. He previously said he shouldn’t be in prison because he is 79 years old, he is unwell and South Africa is currently going through a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
On Thursday, Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola said Zuma will be held in isolation for 14 days in line with COVID-19 protocols. He added the former president will be eligible for parole after about four months.
It is a remarkable fall for a revered veteran of the African National Congress (ANC), who was jailed by South Africa’s white minority rulers for his part in its struggle to make everyone equal before the law.
Zuma’s daughter Dudu Zuma-Sambudla tweeted that he was “en route and he is still in high spirits”.
“He said that he hopes they still have his same overalls from Robben Island … We salute dad!” she wrote on Twitter.
The former herdboy was the ANC’s intelligence chief during the armed struggle against apartheid and spent 10 years in jail on notorious Robben Island.
Zuma was forced out of office in 2018 and replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa after a nine-year tenure stained by corruption scandals and the taint of cronyism.
Critics nicknamed him the “Teflon president” for his perceived ability to sidestep justice.
Zuma has denied that there was widespread corruption during his years in power and struck a defiant note on Sunday, lashing out at the judges and launching legal challenges to his arrest.
His lawyers asked the Constitutional Court on Wednesday to suspend its order to the police to arrest him by midnight, pending the outcome of his challenge against a jail sentence.
The Zondo Commission is examining allegations that he allowed three Indian-born businessmen, Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta, to plunder state resources and traffic influence over government policy. He and the Gupta brothers, who fled to Dubai after Zuma stepped aside, deny any wrongdoing.
Zuma also faces a separate court case relating to a $2bn arms deal in 1999 when he was deputy president. He has denied the charges.
Despite his tarnished reputation, the former president carries substantial weight among officials and grassroots members of the ANC. During the weekend, he told his supporters that there would be chaos if police “dared” arrest him.
Despite its internal tensions, the ANC said it would not interfere with the judicial process.
Party spokesman Pule Made told reporters earlier that “we respect the independence of the judiciary.”