South Africa's step toward equality before the law

The country’s high court orders a former president to prison over his defiance in a corruption probe. The ruling may be a turning point in curbing a culture of impunity.

Judge Sisi Khampepe at South Africa's Constitutional Court hands over documents after a June 29 ruling on whether former South African President Jacob Zuma should be punished for defying an inquiry into corruption.

The main work of South Africa after white rule ended in 1994, the late Nelson Mandela often said, was the reconstruction and development of “the soul” of its people – of any color. That work took a big leap Tuesday when the country’s highest court ordered a former president, Jacob Zuma, to be imprisoned for 15 months over his defiance of the court in a corruption scandal.

The ruling against such a powerful figure in the African National Congress (ANC) sends a message of accountability down through the ruling party and into elected officials and government workers. Namely, the message is that the presumption of impunity can no longer be taken for granted. The court’s signal of equality before the law also resonates with a public eager for honest, clean, and effective public services.

The ruling was necessary because Mr. Zuma had ignored an order to appear before a commission of inquiry into corruption. It remains to be seen if he will now show up for prison or whether his armed supporters will prevent police from implementing the court order. The ruling cannot be appealed.

The court was specific that it was setting an example for the authority of the judicial branch in being fair to all citizens. This will put some wind behind the efforts of the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, in curbing corruption and patronage within the party. In 2018, he led the ouster of Mr. Zuma as corruption charges built up against him. Mr. Ramaphosa has since dismissed several high-ranking ANC officials over allegations of corruption.

“For the first time in South Africa, we are seeing a former head of state held directly accountable by way of a prison sentence,” said Karam Singh, head of legal and investigations at Corruption Watch, a watchdog on government. The symbolism of the ruling may also echo across the rest of Africa, where leaders often defy or manipulate courts to hold on to power or use corruption to garner support from the elite.

The court did hint at Mr. Mandela’s call for “soul” work among South Africans. It said Mr. Zuma had insulted the country’s post-apartheid constitutional democracy “for which so many men and women have fought and lost their lives.” The principles of a democratic state cannot allow leaders to be a law unto themselves. If the court-defying former president does end up in prison, South Africans will see those principles in action.

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