When Nelson Mandela inaugurated the tribunal upholding South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution in 1995, he warned that it would be proved not only by “direct assaults” but also by “insidious corruption”.
“All the highest and humblest in the country, without exception, must be loyal to the same document, to the same principles,” and the court would have a lofty but also sole task to ensure they did so, Mandela said .
Nearly 30 years later, judges dressed in black, green and red from the South African constitutional court are widely considered to have passed Mandela’s test. This week, they quoted Mandela’s words as condemning Jacob Zuma, the former president who fired him as “a few lawless judges,” to 15 months in prison for defying his order to participate in a trial. investigation into corruption.
The ruling surprised South Africans who had long thought that the culture of impunity in the African National Congress in power would never end even under Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa. The trial confirmed the status of the 11-member constitutional court and the judiciary as a bulwark of democracy.
“A lot of people are surprised at how brave the constitutional court was,” said Khaya Sithole, an independent political analyst. “They have given priority to the project of legitimizing the institution as the last point of reference in matters of law.”
In recent years other African judges have also asserted their independence against political leaders. Kenya’s and Malawi’s highest courts have overturned both electoral victories by incumbents, while this month a judge in Mauritania’s West African nation ordered the imprisonment of its former president in a corruption case.
Many in South Africa believed that Zuma would never face justice for the multiple scandals that have swept his nine-year presidency, especially claims that had helped the Guptas, a business family, “capture” the state and they plunder their resources.
Dozens of witnesses have implicated Zuma in a commission of inquiry into corruption. He rejects the game, as do the Guptas. After coming out of his testimony, Zuma also despised the constitutional court. In a 21-page letter, Zuma, who maintains strong support among ANC members and in his native state of Kwazulu Natal, has threatened a revolt against “judicial corruption.”
Even 15 months in prison “cannot properly understand the damage” of Zuma’s attack on the image of the judiciary, said Sisi Khampepe, the deputy director in office while reading the verdict. “He owes this penalty for violating not only this court, nor even the sanctity of the judiciary, but the nation he once promised to lead and the constitution he promised to defend.”
While a minority of judges say Zuma should have received a full criminal trial before being incarcerated, they accepted that he was in contempt of court and should be convicted in one way or another. Mzwanele Manyi, Zuma’s spokesman, told local media on Wednesday that Zuma’s rights had been denied. “He has a criminal penalty but has not been allowed the rights that other criminals are given,” he said. Zuma has until Sunday to transmit himself. In one case, police are looking to arrest him at his home in KwaZulu-Natal.
Analysts have said Zuma appears to have misjudged South African courts, which have successfully resisted the tactics he used to weaken other organs of the state. During his nine-year tenure until 2018, the former president has installed partnerships in institutions such as the revenue service, national prosecuting authorities, state-owned enterprises and parliament. He had less influence over the constitutional court because he could only nominate judges from a shortlist chosen by a special commission after public hearings.
South African courts also have a wide-ranging appeals process and require judges to explain their decisions in detail, protecting them from undue influence, said Mbekezeli Benjamin, a researcher for Judges Matter, a sentencing judge. “The judiciary is small and quite strict,” he said. “These mechanisms do not make it as easy as other institutions to infiltrate and try to influence.”
For judges, Zuma attacked much more than a court but also a symbol of the country’s struggle to win the history of apartheid, where for hundreds of years blacks and whites were not equal according to law.
Years after its inauguration, the court moved into a new building, symbolically sculpted from the bricks of an old Johannesburg prison by political opponents of colonial rule and apartheid, including Mandela. As part of the building’s design, the judges are located just below ground level, allowing ordinary South Africans to look out over them. The court is “where the constitution of South Africa is given life,” Benjamin said.
Lawyers consider the Johannesburg tribunal as one of a select group of institutions that have adhered to its constitutional mandate. These include the central bank and its public prosecutor, or government ombudsman, who originally demanded the creation of the state’s arrest warrant.
The decision on Zuma is not the only first-instance court decision this year. He drafted a law that allows journalists to be monitored by the state and Thursday will also decide whether Ramaphosa cheated parliament in a political donation case.
Zuma’s sentence “is a very difficult political decision, and there are huge implications for someone as popular as Zuma to go to prison… But the law, like [the justices] He’s found it, he says he should, ”Benjamin said.
“It’s just hard to feel sorry for the man – because he dug his own grave,” Sithole said. Zuma’s challenge and attacks on the judiciary “may take a couple of days or a couple of tweets” longer, Sithole adds. “But he will always be behind the nets at the end of it all.”