JOHANNESBURG (BLOOMBERG) – Jacob Zuma, who has been repeatedly implicated in aiding and abetting the plunder of state funds during the nine years he led South Africa, was sentenced to 15 months in jail for defying a court order to testify at a graft inquiry.

The Constitutional Court ruled in January that Zuma had to respond to questions from a judicial commission headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.

But the 79-year-old former intelligence operative accused the court and Zondo of bias, walked out of one scheduled panel hearing in November and boycotted another in February.

The panel responded by filing contempt charges against him.

“The Constitutional Court can do nothing but conclude that Mr Zuma is guilty of the crime of contempt of court,” Acting Chief Justice Sisi Khampepe said in a ruling in Johannesburg on Tuesday (June 29).

“Mr Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma is sentenced to undergo 15 months imprisonment.”

The ruling offers a mixed blessing for President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has made the fight against graft a top priority.

While Zuma’s incarceration will silence one of his biggest detractors and demonstrate his administration’s commitment to upholding the rule of law, it could also widen divisions within the ruling party and alienate its supporters in the former president’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal.

The rand pared its decline after the judgement, trading down 0.3 per cent against the dollar at 14.3087 by 12.05pm in Johannesburg.

The government estimates more than 500 billion rand (S$47 billion) was stolen from the state during Zuma’s rule, and at least 40 witnesses who have appeared before Zondo linked the ex-president to the looting spree.

Zuma, who the ruling party forced to quit in 2018 to stem a loss of electoral support, has denied wrongdoing and says the allegations against him are part of a smear campaign.

Zuma was not present for Tuesday’s ruling. He has five days to present himself to the authorities.

In the event that Zuma fails to hand himself over the police must “take all steps that are necessary” to ensure he is delivered to a prison to start serving his sentence, Justice Khampepe said.

In the event that Zuma fails to hand himself over, the minister of police and the national police commissioner must take all necessary steps to ensure Zuma begins serving his sentence, the judge said.

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