Jacob Zuma, former South African president, turned himself in to police on Wednesday to begin 15 months in jail for contempt of court, the culmination of a long legal drama seen as a test of the post-apartheid country’s ability to enforce the rule of law.
Police spokesperson Lirandzu Themba confirmed in a statement that Zuma, who was president from 2009 – 2018, was in police custody, in compliance with last week’s Constitutional Court ruling.
The court sentenced Zuma to 15 months in prison for defying an order in February to give evidence at an inquiry examining corruption during the nine years that he was president. The inquiry is led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.
Police had signalled they would arrest Zuma by the end of Wednesday if he failed to appear at a police station. Hundreds of his supporters, some of them armed with guns, spears and shields, had gathered nearby at his rural homestead in Nkandla, eastern South Africa, to try to prevent his arrest.
But in the end, the 79-year-old Zuma decided to go quietly.
A convoy of cars believed to be carrying Zuma drove out of his homestead at high speed about 40 minutes before the cut-off time for him to give himself up.
“Please be advised that (ex) President Zuma has decided to comply with the incarceration order,” his foundation tweeted, marking the first time Zuma’s camp had shown any willingness to cooperate with the court.
“He is on his way to hand himself into a Correctional Services Facility in KZN,” it added, just minutes before the deadline expired.
It is a remarkable fall for a revered veteran of the African National Congress, who was jailed by South Africa’s white minority rulers for his part in its struggle to make everyone equal before the law.
Zuma’s daughter Dudu Zuma-Sambudla tweeted that he was “en route and he is still in high spirits”.
“He said that he hopes they still have his same overalls from Robben Island … We salute dad!” she wrote on Twitter.
Zuma has denied that there was widespread corruption during his years in power and struck a defiant note on Sunday, lashing out at the judges and launching legal challenges to his arrest.
His lawyers asked the Constitutional Court on Wednesday to suspend its order to the police to arrest him by midnight, pending the outcome of his challenge against a jail sentence.
Zuma was forced out of office in 2018 and replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa after a nine-year tenure stained by corruption scandals and the taint of cronyism.
Critics nicknamed him the “Teflon president” for his perceived ability to sidestep justice.
The Zondo Commission is examining allegations that he allowed three Indian-born businessmen, Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta, to plunder state resources and traffic influence over government policy. He and the Gupta brothers, who fled to Dubai after Zuma stepped aside, deny any wrongdoing.
Zuma also faces a separate court case relating to a $2bn arms deal in 1999 when he was deputy president. He has denied the charges. The former president maintains that he is the victim of a political witch-hunt and that Zondo is biased against him.
Despite his tarnished reputation, the former president carries substantial weight among officials and grassroots members of the ANC.
During the weekend, he told his supporters that there would be chaos if police “dared” arrest him.
The former herdboy was the ANC’s intelligence chief during the armed struggle against apartheid.
Despite its internal tensions, the ANC said it would not interfere with the judicial process.
Party spokesman Pule Made told reporters earlier that “we respect the independence of the judiciary.”