Just just before midnight on July 7, a beforehand unthinkable event took place in South Africa. Previous President Jacob Zuma was taken into custody by South African law enforcement at his rural homestead in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal, and transported to a prison in just the province exactly where he started a 15-month sentence as lawful punishment for a guilty verdict handed down by South Africa’s Constitutional Court—the country’s highest—for getting in contempt of that court docket.

The imprisonment of Zuma signifies a triumph for constitutionalism in a region wherever former liberation motion heroes, these kinds of as Zimbabwe’s first democratic president, Robert Mugabe, typically became neocolonial thugs who reproduced the anti-democratic abuses of the colonialists they defeated. In point, the tale of Zuma’s imprisonment carries numerous crucial political classes for the worldwide neighborhood, including for extensive-standing constitutional democracies like the United States, Canada, and Germany.

Just in advance of midnight on July 7, a beforehand unthinkable function took area in South Africa. Former President Jacob Zuma was taken into custody by South African police at his rural homestead in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal, and transported to a jail inside of the province wherever he started out a 15-month sentence as legal punishment for a guilty verdict handed down by South Africa’s Constitutional Court—the country’s highest—for staying in contempt of that courtroom.

The imprisonment of Zuma represents a triumph for constitutionalism in a location where by previous liberation motion heroes, this kind of as Zimbabwe’s initially democratic president, Robert Mugabe, frequently grew to become neocolonial thugs who reproduced the anti-democratic abuses of the colonialists they defeated. In truth, the tale of Zuma’s imprisonment carries a lot of critical political classes for the international community, which include for very long-standing constitutional democracies like the United States, Canada, and Germany.

The way South Africa’s Constitutional Court docket taken care of this case should really be emulated by large courts all-around the entire world. The courtroom was totally unfazed by the achievable political repercussions of its final decision, and justices only bought on with the organization of dispassionate authorized adjudication, strictly making use of constitutional legislation to the specifics in advance of them.

Justice Sisi Khampepe wrote in the vast majority judgment: “Never right before has this Court’s authority and legitimacy been subjected to the varieties of assaults that Mr Zuma has elected to launch towards it and its members. Hardly ever right before has the judicial course of action been so threatened. Accordingly, it is correct for this Court docket to training its jurisdiction and assert its exclusive authority as the apex Courtroom and supreme guardian of the Constitution.”

Crucially, the court docket then asserted its duty to punish this type of attack on the judiciary. She additional wrote: “Not only is Mr Zuma’s conduct so outlandish as to warrant a disposal of standard treatment, but it is becoming increasingly evident that the harm staying prompted by his ongoing assaults on the integrity of the judicial approach are not able to be fixed by an purchase down the line. It have to be stopped now.”

And therein lies the political and legal lesson for other nations: Politicians ought to be manufactured to reconcile themselves to the actuality that they are ordinary members of culture somewhat than extraordinary beings who are certified to escape the attain of a country’s rules.


South Africa is however notorious for its stubbornly substantial amounts of violent criminal offense, extraordinary inequality, small progress fees, and high stages of joblessness. At current, it is also struggling with a general public wellness disaster with a weak vaccine acquisition and rollout method in the encounter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The other unfavorable concept that dents the country’s name is corruption. All through Zuma’s presidency, from 2009 to 2018, massive pieces of the South African point out were hollowed out and preyed on by personal passions in cahoots with wayward politicians and civil servants promoting their souls to the best bidders. Regionally, the grand theft of public assets was labeled “state capture.” Zuma and the governing African Nationwide Congress (ANC) were central to the generation of prospects for billions of South African rands to be stolen, significantly by one particular household that experienced cozied up to Zuma and the ANC—the Guptas.

Thuli Madonsela, South Africa’s previous community protector (a posture akin to that of an ombudsperson), purchased that a fee of inquiry be established up to investigate state seize just just before her term in place of work expired in 2016. This commission summoned Zuma to show up ahead of it as a witness, but on Nov. 19, 2020, when he was to solution a variety of queries, Zuma walked out of the inquiry following an endeavor to get the fee chair, Raymond Zondo, to recuse himself failed.

From that place on, he stopped all cooperation, so the commission inevitably turned to the Constitutional Court to immediate Zuma to respond to questions prior to it. The courtroom located that the pretty respectable constitutional role of the point out seize inquiry to dig for the truth about widespread corruption could not probably do its position thoroughly if a person as central to quite a few of the allegations as the previous president did not honor a lawful ask for from the fee to appear prior to it.

The court docket instructed Zuma to go back again and testify. He even now refused and simply did not look on Feb. 15 as asked for by the commission, backed by the Constitutional Court directive. In its place, he launched a great number of assaults on the judiciary in general and Zondo in particular. He dug in his heels and casually asserted a willingness to go to jail relatively than testify. That is when the fee went back again to the Constitutional Court to argue that Zuma was in contempt of the purchase that he look prior to it. Zuma’s last constitutional delinquency was to refuse to even file responding papers with the Constitutional Courtroom, even nevertheless he experienced a great deal of prospect to explain why he did not honor the court’s get.

In a scathing portrayal of Zuma as “recalcitrant” and describing his attacks on the judiciary as “egregious,” “insidious,” and motivated by a wish to “destroy the rule of law,” the court discovered Zuma responsible of contempt on June 29 and argued that the extent of his trampling on the authority of the Constitutional Courtroom was a grave offense. Offered that he is a former president who could encourage other individuals to evade and disregard the administration of justice, the court concluded that only prison time would prevent other people.

Zuma was even now unfazed and again ignored the court’s purchase that he hand himself in excess of to the law enforcement to get started his sentence in 5 times. He did not and as a substitute termed a press convention in which he reiterated his absence of regard for the judiciary, preserved his innocence, and normally painted himself a sufferer by alluding to conspiracies with out any evidence. This is why, on Wednesday evening, the police had to support the courtroom by taking Zuma into custody. He did not put up a battle, and, just after some feared that a small crowd of supporters may perhaps violently defend him, no blood was spilled. He was peacefully escorted to jail.


The most critical lesson South Africa’s response to Zuma’s abuses retains for the environment is that the theory of constitutional supremacy can be defended if there is political will to do so. Every single particular person will have to be equal ahead of the legislation. In follow, nonetheless, politically and economically strong men and women also frequently escape the very long arm of the legislation. A very important take a look at, consequently, of regardless of whether a constitutional democracy is genuinely fully commited to substantive democratic rules and values is how it treats the strong when they are in lawful problems.

It is uncommon for associates of the govt to be investigated, let on your own found responsible of crimes. Although many nations have imprisoned former leaders, individuals procedures have often been tainted by political retribution. It is rarer even now to be discovered responsible of contempt of court, enable on your own sentenced to actual time in jail. That fact by yourself means that the judiciary succeeded in demonstrating that the South African Structure trumps politics.

For Zuma to casually dismiss a legitimate Constitutional Courtroom get was a way of putting himself earlier mentioned the regulation. Much too quite a few political leaders have carried out so. South Africa’s prosperous dealing with of his contempt of court docket exhibits that it is possible to choose former heads of condition pretty as ordinary users of modern society who are not entitled to particular lawful treatment.

A next lesson from Zuma’s imprisonment is that postcolonial governments do not need to come to be neocolonial monsters. Africa is littered with circumstance studies in which the democratic challenge, just after liberation, goes awry in the next or third decade of freedom. This typically manifests by itself in leaders’ refusals to relinquish political power when defeated at the polls. The ANC in South Africa has still to experience this historic test simply because it continues to be, regardless of management and governance weaknesses, a highly effective social motion and also has the gift of dealing with a weak electoral opposition. When the ANC faces imminent decline of political electricity, South Africa will then be tested when once more.

It is much too soon to say that South Africa is a product for the worldwide neighborhood when it will come to political accountability. Following all, not a one individual has, to day, been sentenced to jail time for state seize, inspite of the tremendous volume of do the job done by the fee on the lookout into corrupt government deals. But it would be a slip-up to downplay what the imprisonment of Zuma signifies symbolically.

Zuma is not the only politician in South Africa or in the planet who thinks of himself as higher than and further than the regulation. And the derailing of a democracy does not occur right away.

There is often a sluggish drop in democratic norms and values—and involved citizens should seem out for the red flags. Are the law enforcement prepared to do their position when they are provided conditions involving politicians? Are courts prepared to deliver a person to jail if they offend the mores of modern society, as expressed in the statutes of the nation, even if they are from a very well-identified political household? Can democratic accountability be entrenched, specially when previous liberation motion leaders are the kinds who need to have to be held accountable legally, morally, and politically?

In Zuma’s South Africa, all of those people pink flags were plainly seen as a fledgling democracy that experienced inspired the planet began to veer wildly off system. With very last month’s judgment and Wednesday’s imprisonment of a previous president, South Africa has set its democracy firmly again on monitor.