South Africa’s ex-president Jacob Zuma on Friday mounted a last-ditch legal bid to avoid prison after the country’s top court ordered him jailed for failing to appear before graft investigators.
In a landmark ruling, the Constitutional Court on Tuesday handed Zuma a 15-month term for contempt after he snubbed a probe into the theft of state assets under his tenure.
If the 79-year-old fails to turn himself in by Sunday, police will be given a further three days to arrest him and take him to jail to start the sentence.
As the deadline loomed, Zuma pleaded on Friday that the order be “reconsidered and rescinded.”
“It will not be futile,” Zuma said in papers filed to the court, “to make one last attempt to invite the Constitutional Court to relook its decision and to merely reassess whether it has acted within the Constitution or, erroneously, beyond the powers vested in the court by the Constitution.”
He cited his “own unstable state of health… it is my physical life that the incarceration order threatens.”
He said it was “no exaggeration to label (the ruling) as cruel and degrading punishment.”
In this light, Zuma argued, he believed he was entitled to a court that would examine his request “with dispassionate interest but a keen sense of judicial duty and independence.”
According to a copy of a warrant of committal seen on Friday, Zuma would be taken to Westville Prison in southeastern Kwa-Zulu Natal province.
Supporters gathered on Friday outside Zuma’s rural home at Nkandla, about 200 kilometres (120 miles) away, in a show of solidarity.
About two dozen women who said they travelled more than 300 kms overnight from the neighbouring Eastern Cape province camped at the entrance to his home.
“We support Zuma and we want to know what is going to happen with him, which is why we are here,” 43-year-old Cecilia Nongce told AFP, wearing a traditional Nguni blue-and-red blanket to ward off the cold.
“We love Nxamala,” she said in Zulu, referring to Zuma by his clan name, adding that they hoped he would come out to speak to them.
A group of other supporters arrived in two mini-buses waving ANC flags and wearing white T-shirts with the inscription ‘wenzeni uZuma’, Zulu for “What has Zuma done?”
Two tents have been erected to shelter members of the veterans of ANC’s armed struggle wing Umkhonto we Sizwe, who have staunchly stood behind Zuma in recent years.
Zuma’s nine years were stained by scandal and allegations of graft, ending disastrously in 2018 when he was forced out by the ruling ANC and replaced as president by Cyril Ramaphosa.
But he is also charismatic, rising from herdboy to the presidency, and is one of the historic figures in the fight against apartheid, spending 10 years in prison at notorious Robben Island.
He retains a deeply loyal network of lawmakers, officials and grassroots supporters on the left flank of the ANC.
“We will not allow President Zuma to go to jail,” said Carl Niehaus, a close friend of Zuma and a former ANC spokesman. “We will be uncompromising.”
Outside his house, a group of mostly young black men sang a song called “Asinalo Uvalo,” which translates as “We are not afraid or ashamed or what we do.”
One of the verses ran, “We are not afraid of this Cyril who disgusts us, we are not afraid of this Zuma whom we love.”
Apparently fearing a showdown, the ANC said it had postponed a scheduled meeting of its top National Executive Committee this weekend.
“The national officials were mindful of the situation developing in Kwa-Zulu Natal and the need for the ANC to give clear and principled leadership to ensure the maintenance of the rule of law and to avoid any violence, injury, or loss of life,” the party said in a statement.
The ex-president’s foundation on Wednesday described the jail sentence as “emotional”, “angry” and “not consistent with our constitution”.
Zuma is separately due in court in July facing 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering relating to a 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and military gear from five European arms firms for 30 billion rand, then the equivalent of nearly $5 billion.