As hundreds of his supporters gathered outside his home in a show of force, a South African court decided to hear ex-president Jacob Zuma’s challenge to a 15-month prison sentence for failing to attend a corruption hearing.
Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison by the constitutional court on Tuesday for fleeing the investigation conducted by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo in February. Zuma had until the end of Sunday to surrender, but the court agreed to hear his case on Saturday, temporarily postponing the order.
The court will hear his application on July 12, according to the South African Broadcasting Corporation ( SABC).
The jail sentence was seen as sign of just how far Zuma, once revered as a veteran of the struggle against white minority rule, has fallen since embarking on a presidency beset by multiple sleaze and graft scandals between 2009 and 2018.
His travails have divided the ruling African National Congress, which cancelled an executive committee meeting over the weekend in order to focus on the ensuing crisis.
The ex-leader has applied to the court for the sentence to be annulled on the grounds that it is excessive and could expose him to COVID-19.
“When somebody is saying please hear me out … and then we have court that says ‘OK, we are willing to listen to you’, that’s the kind of justice system people died for in this country,” the Jacob Zuma Foundation said in a statement.
At his hometown of Nkandla, Zuma, who did not speak to his supporters, wore a black and gold tropical shirt as he walked through the crowd, but no mask. He was guarded by men dressed as traditional warriors from his Zulu nation, wearing leopard skins and holding spears with oval ox-hide shields.
“They can give Zuma 15 months … or 100 months. He’s not going to serve even one day or one minute of that,” his son Edward Zuma told Reuters at the gathering. “They would have to kill me before they put their hands on him.”
In an application to annul the decision submitted on Friday, Zuma said going to jail “would put him at the highest risk of death” from the pandemic because he was nearly 80 and has a medical condition.
Zuma also called the sentence a “political statement of exemplary punishment”. He has maintained he is the victim of a political witch hunt and that Zondo is biased against him.
Zuma caved in to calls to resign and hand over power to Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018, and has since been the target of multiple attempts to prosecute him for suspected corruption during and before his presidency.
The Zondo Commission is looking into claims that he permitted three Indian-born businessmen, Atul, Ajay, and Rajesh Gupta, to loot state funds and sway policy. He and his brothers, who fled to Dubai after Zuma was removed from power, deny any wrongdoing.
Zuma is also embroiled in a separate legal battle over a $2 billion armaments contract struck when he was vice president in 1999.