Former South African President Jacob Zuma, who was convicted on contempt-of-court charges last week, spent the night in prison after he failed in a last-ditch bid to delay serving his 15-month sentence.
Confirmation of Zuma’s detention came shortly after the expiry of a Constitutional Court deadline that he be jailed by midnight on Wednesday.
He’s being held in the hospital section of a newly built prison in Estcourt, about 147 kilometers (92 miles) northwest of the port city of Durban, for medical assessment, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola told reporters Thursday.
Zuma will serve at least a quarter of his 15-month sentence, Lamola said. “Where there is no stipulated minimum time before getting parole, then the law says a quarter of the sentence has to be served before being released on parole.”
On June 29, the Constitutional Court found Zuma guilty of violating its order to testify before a judicial panel that’s probing graft during his rule. It agreed to consider the ex-president’s application to review that judgment, with a hearing scheduled for July 12, but the concession didn’t suspend his sanction.
Zuma’s lawyer wrote to acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo on Wednesday requesting that his arrest be postponed, but he didn’t respond. A High Court is considering a separate application aimed at ensuring he remains free pending the review of his case, but it’s only due to deliver judgment on July 9 and it’s unclear whether it has jurisdiction.
The ex-president’s foundation said he’d decided to surrender to the authorities. “President Zuma has decided to comply with the incarceration order,” it said on Twitter on Wednesday.
Zuma, 79, remains an influential political figure in South Africa, and his case has been a key test for the country’s democracy and its resolve to uphold the rule of law.
A former intelligence operative, he spent a decade in prison for opposing White-minority rule and led South Africa for almost nine scandal-marred years until the ruling African National Congress forced him to step down in 2018 to stem a loss of electoral support.
The government estimates that more than 500 billion rand ($35 billion) was stolen from state coffers during his rule. He denies wrongdoing.
While Zuma refused to participate in the initial Constitutional Court hearings, he maintains he was convicted without trial and wasn’t given the opportunity to argue in mitigation of sentence.
His lawyers warned that his 15-month term was tantamount to condemning him to death, given his advanced age and poor health.
Throngs of Zuma’s backers gathered outside his home in the village of Nkandla in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province over the weekend and vowed to block his arrest, though their numbers subsequently dwindled.
Video footage circulated on social media showed a large police contingent on standby near Zuma’s home on Wednesday, but a feared showdown didn’t materialize.
The ANC distanced itself from Zuma’s attempt to discredit the Constitutional Court, and slated his supporters’ threats to resort to violence to prevent the authorities from taking him into custody.
Zuma is facing a separate trial on charges that he took bribes from arms dealers that date back to the 1990s, and could face an extended sentence if convicted.