Former South African president Jacob Zuma said that sending him to jail during the COVID-19 pandemic at his age would tantamount to a death sentence. Zuma was addressing a media briefing from his home in Nkandla on Sunday evening after he was ordered by the country’s apex court to hand himself over to police to start his 15-month prison sentence.
“Sending me to jail during the height of a pandemic at my age is the same as sentencing me to death. The death sentence was declared unconstitutional in South Africa in 1995,” he said. On Saturday, the Constitutional Court agreed to hear an application by Zuma to rescind the judgement. The former president cited his age of 79, his health condition and other unspecified reasons for this.
The hearing will take place on July 12, effectively keeping him out of jail until then. In what analysts described as an extraordinary briefing, Zuma repeatedly deflected questions from the media about why he was not reprimanding the scores of supporters who had flouted current level four lockdown regulations which restricted gatherings in public and required compulsory wearing of face masks.
In tense scenes outside his homestead for the past few days, supporters brandished traditional weapons and some fired shots into the air forcing police who were trying to control the situation to withdraw. They threatened violence if Zuma was taken to jail. There has been public outrage about police’s failure to arrest people for contravention of the lockdown laws as news emerged of South Africa recording its highest daily Covid infection rate of 16,585 new cases and 333 deaths overnight.
There was also anger about Zuma not using the opportunity to call on his supporters to respect the law, rather saying that they had been provoked into doing what they did. “Zuma has responsibility as a leader to make sure that the laws of the country for Covid are respected,” said veteran African National Congress leader Mvuso Msimang.
“He has an obligation to tell people, the organisers to start off with, not to bring crowds of this nature. (Zuma) says people are provoked and angry therefore he must let them break the laws and expose them to infection. That’s really terrible leadership,” Msimang said. Zuma described the current situation, including the lockdown regulations, as being reminiscent of the apartheid era as he continued to insist that he was not given a fair trial after repeatedly refusing to appear at the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture.
Various witnesses at the commission have implicated Zuma in corrupt activities, especially because of his alleged close relationship to the three Gupta brothers — Atul, Ajay and Rajesh — who are now wanted for looting the country’s state and parastatal coffers of billions of rands. The Gupta family is believed to be in self-exile in Dubai, with South Africa having initiated the extradition process to return them for trial.
Earlier, the Commission’s chairperson, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, said that Zuma was given numerous opportunities to answer to the allegations but had declined to do so. Zuma likened the current situation as being reminiscent of the apartheid era.
“I’m very concerned that South Africa is fast sliding back to apartheid-type rule. I’m facing long detention without a trial. We have a level four lockdown, with all hallmarks of an emergency and the curfews of the 1980s. The only difference is that we only use different levels like contempt of court instead of detention without trial but the substance is exactly the same. “Being jailed without a trial is no different from the apartheid detention without trial,” he said.
Zuma said he was not afraid to go to jail. “If it was up to me, I would once again go to jail for my beliefs as early as today whether I come out alive or not. But I have never operated as an individual, and I am therefore, guided by views of my family and comrades,” he said.