Former South African President Jacob Zuma Free at Last

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Jacob Zuma attending a court session in July 2021 (Image Credit: Bloomberg)

Jacob Zuma is free, again, after having received remission from the Department of Corrections of South Africa. The special remission extended to the fourth South African President was part of the department’s efforts to ease overcrowding. He then spent less than an hour after readmission to the prison system to serve the remainder of his 15-month sentence. This release is just the latest twist in Zuma’s rollercoaster life that attracts admiration and controversy in equal measure.

Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, popularly known as “Msholozi” in his native Zulu dialect, hails from Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal. Brought up in a rural household, Zuma did not have the privilege of getting a formal education. However, this did not deter his pursuit of an education, and he organized informal teaching sessions with his peers at night to teach and learn from them. Zuma then joined the African National Congress (ANC) ranks, leading to his ten-year imprisonment at Robben Island. Afterward, in 1975, he went into exile and became a full-time member of the ANC, spearheading the party’s military wing, umkhonto we Sizwe.

Zuma’s political career took off after his return from exile in 1990. He was elected ANC’s chairperson in the Natal province and was instrumental in resolving the political conflict between the ANC and the local Inkantha Freedom Party. Later, he became ANC’s national chairperson after the country’s first democratic elections that ushered in the tenure of Nelson Mandela with Thambo Mbeki as his deputy. Zuma became ANC’s deputy president and was later appointed to the same position in the executive under Mbeki. There, he gained national and international limelight that would propel him to the presidency in 2009.

Some of President Zuma’s significant achievements in his nine-year tenure include the introduction of the national development plan (Vision 2030), an affordable housing program that offered up to 4.5 million units, and expanding access to essential services, including electricity, water, and health. In particular, he launched an HIV/AIDS program that ensured the availability of antiretroviral drugs that were instrumental in fighting the stigma around the disease. Zuma’s policies were a departure from his predecessor’s, driven partly by his fervent desire to connect and maintain the support of the working class in the country.

President Zuma also put South Africa on the international map as a founding member of the BRICS, which has become a powerful player in global politics. Zuma also lobbied for establishing the African Standby Force, which would be instrumental in conflict resolution across the continent.

Despite President Zuma’s popularity, he has had a series of scandals that have stained his political career considerably. They go as far back as his tenure as the deputy president, where he was accused of corruption, leading to his eventual dismissal from the post after facing charges. In the same period, he was acquitted of two different rape allegations. 

Perhaps the revelations of the “Guptagate” scandal played the most significant role in bringing Zuma’s political career crumbling down. The scandal involved state capture, where the powerful Gupta family considerably influenced state appointments and major government contracting. It led to an unsuccessful vote of no confidence against him. However, Cyril Ramaphosa, the country’s current president, replaced him as the president of the ANC, leading to his resignation. Before his resignation, he established a commission of inquiry into state capture, fraud, and corruption as required by the Constitution. 

Against this backdrop, the former president was arrested following contempt of court, leading to the issuance of an arrest warrant. He was handed a 15-month prison sentence, which he started serving in July 2021. However, he was released on medical parole and was supposed to finish his sentence this month until President Ramaphosa granted him clemency, freeing the former president. But given the nature and gravity of the allegations in the commission’s report, this might not be the last of former president Jacob Zuma’s forays in the corridors of justice.

Written by Gathieri Kahuko

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