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Go to jail, Zuma — and do not pass go

- William Gumede

Being a country’s president, or former one, does not translate into immunity from prosecution.

When former President Jacob Zuma goes to jail, as he must, for defying the Constitutional Court by refusing to appear before the Zondo Commission, he will join an illustrious group of former country presidents who have been jailed for wrongdoing, corruption or crime.

Being a country president or former one, does not translate into immunity from prosecution for wrongdoing, corruption or crime, as Zuma, his supporters and many ANC leaders and members appear to believe.

Zuma will also not be the first former country leader prosecuted for wrongdoing, corruption or crime, who blames a conspiracy by faceless enemies for his self-inflicted troubles. 

The governing ANC appears intend on trying to find an escape clause for Zuma not to go to jail. This is clear in the ANC’s top six leaders bending backwards to appease him by meeting with him this week and pleading with him to return to the Zondo commission. This despite the fact that Zuma had already broken the law, by refusing to appear on the day the Constitutional Court instructed him to do.

For Zuma to appear after the Constitutional Court assigned date, based on a deal this week between him and the ANC’s top six leadership, cannot reverse the fact that Zuma already broke the law by not appearing at the Zondo Commission on the Constitutional Court scheduled date. And should therefore be arrested, whether he now belatedly agrees to go to the Zondo commission or not, which is now after the court scheduled date.

Zuma must be arrested not only to hold him accountable for actions, but to protect the integrity of the Zondo Commission, South Africa’s constitutional system, and the principle that all is equal before the law.

The sentencing of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy last week to three years in jail, two of them suspended, for corruption, should serve as a lesson to ANC leaders, members and defenders of Zuma that no one in any country should, be seen as too powerful to be prosecuted for wrongdoing.

Sarkozy was convicted of trying to bribe a judge in 2014, when he had already left the presidency, by suggesting he could secure a top job for him in return for information about a separate case. He was convicted of influence-peddling and violation of professional secrecy.

In the French ruling, Judge Christine Mée said Sarkozy “knew what (he) was doing was wrong”, and that his action to try to bribe a judge gave the judiciary “a bad image”. Sarkozy is appealing the sentence.

Sarkozy is the second post-war French president to be prosecuted for corruption. His predecessor Jacques Chirac received a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 for having arranged fake jobs at the Paris city council when he was mayor.

Both Sarkozy and Chirac blamed political opponents for their prosecutions.  

In January this year, South Korea’s Supreme Court upheld a 20-year jail term for former President Park Geun-hye over a corruption scandal that led to her impeachment in 2017. Park was convicted of abuse of power and coercion after she was impeached in 2017. She was initially in 2018 sentenced to 30 years and fined 20billion won. However, following her appeal, a high court reduced the term to 15 years for corruption, plus 5 years for abuse of power, and reduced her fine to 18bn won.

Park was found guilty of bribery and coercion, after she had colluded with a childhood friend, Choi Soon-sil, to pressure businesses such as Samsung and Lotte to give donations to foundations run by Choi, for these companies to give procurement contracts to companies owned by Choi and for leaking confidential government documents to Choi. Park denied the charges, saying they were manufactured by her political opponents, and she refused to take part in the court proceedings.

In November 2019, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was freed after more than 18 months in prison, after being convicted for corruption. The former Workers Party stalwart was jailed in 2018 for initially a more than 12 year sentence, which was reduced to eight years and 10 months, for receiving a luxury seaside flat from an engineering company implicated in public sector corruption.  

He was released following a Supreme Court ruling that defendants should only be jailed if they have run out appeal options. He is still appealing his corruption conviction, but faces a slew of separate corruption charges also.  

A Brazilian Supreme Court judge on 8 March 2021 annulled the criminal convictions against Lula.  The judge said that a regional court which originally sentenced him for corruption did not have the authority to do so, and that he must be retried in federal courts. The 8 March 2021 judgement, which still needs to be reviewed by the full Supreme Court, allows Lula to run in the 2022 presidential race.

Lula has denied all allegations of corruption against him, saying they are politically driven by rightwing opponents. He blamed the “rotten side of the judicial system”, for his downfall, saying it was “working to criminalise the left”.

There should be no exceptions, through political deals, for Zuma. He should like Sarkozy, Park and Lula, face jail term, not only for defying the Constitutional Court, but for a decade of grand corruption on a gigantic scale unseen before in modern South Africa. 

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand; and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). This article was first published in the Sunday Times.