Former South African president Jacob Zuma handed himself over to police late Wednesday to begin serving a 15-month prison sentence for failing to testify about corruption allegations during his nine-year tenure in office. South Africa’s highest court last week found the 79-year-old guilty of contempt for refusing to appear before a commission investigating the myriad of corruption allegations that plagued his term and shook the country’s belief in its post-apartheid economic and political trajectory. It remains unclear how long Zuma will be in prison; a hearing is scheduled for next week with the high court to consider mitigating circumstances that would prevent the former freedom fighter and African National Congress leader from serving the full term. Zuma told South African media over the weekend that for someone his age prison “is the same as sentencing me to death.”
Zuma’s arrest, however, remains a stunning twist in legal drama that has been playing out for years, rattling the ruling ANC party, and highlighting serious concerns about the party’s rule and leadership. The arrest has been widely seen in the country as an affirmation of democratic rule and principles that Zuma himself dedicated much of his early life to secure. Zuma played an outsize role in the country’s revolutionary struggle against the apartheid regime and was part of a generation of leaders that made the sometimes uneasy shift from exile or prison to power in the country that retains vast wealth, but much of it still sequestered in a white minority. Zuma was plagued by corruption allegations well before his rise to the presidency as only the country’s fourth president following country’s Nelson Mandela-led transition to a representative democracy. He has faced a dozen charges related to a $5 billion arms deal in the 1990s, a level of graft that the South African government says was exceeded during his time in office from 2009 to 2018 where tens of billions of dollars went missing.
Despite the allegations of cronyism, sweetheart deals, kickbacks, and state looting, Zuma still retains a base of support in the Zulu community, particularly in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. Zuma held a rally there Sunday as a deadline to turn himself in approached, making comparisons to his treatment and that of the apartheid state. “I have a duty and obligation to ensure that the dignity and respect for our judiciary is not compromised by sentences that remind our people of apartheid days,” Zuma told supporters. By Wednesday night, minutes before a court ordered deadline for his arrest, the tone was more reserved as ANC leaders were dispatched to Zuma’s compound to broker the handover, which took place with little fanfare despite fears of violence.