The Zondo commission on Tuesday evening welcomed the prison sentence imposed on former president Jacob Zuma as a vindication of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
“The commission views the judgment as one of great importance for the rule of law, the principle of equality before the law, the primacy of our constitution and the protection of our constitutional democracy,” it said in a statement issued on behalf of Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo a few hours after the unprecedented judgment.
The Constitutional Court, in a majority judgement penned by acting Deputy Chief Justice Sisi Khampepe, sentenced Zuma to 15 months in prison, not only for refusing to obey a court order that he respect summons to testify before the commission, but also for attacking the authority of the judiciary in a scandalous manner.
“Never before has the legitimacy of this court, nor the authority vested in the rule of law, been subjected to the kind of sacrilegious attacks that Mr Zuma, no less in stature than a former president of this Republic, has elected to launch,” said Khampepe.
The majority elected not to impose a coercive sentence, suspended on condition that Zuma agrees to still testify, because it reasoned that it would be naive, at this point, given his stubborn recalcitrance, to believe he would do so.
This, therefore, makes it clear that the commission will never hear the former president answer to allegations implicating Zuma in state capture. But Zondo said the sentence signalled that the orders of the commission and of the courts must be respected.
“The commission will continue with its work in the knowledge that the highest court in the land has made it clear that summonses issued by the commission must be complied with and orders of courts must be obeyed.”
“The judgment is also significant for the independence of our judiciary,” Zondo added.
“In the commission’s view, the judgment sends a profoundly important message to all in our country that there are serious consequences for anyone who defies summonses and orders of courts and that such conduct will not be tolerated, no matter what the person’s status is in society.”
The court accepted every argument made by counsel for the commission, advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, barring his plea for a sentence of two years.
Here, Khampepe rejected his reasoning because it was based on the sanctions set out in the Commissions Act, but the sentence concerned not a breach of summons of the commission, but of an order of the court telling him to obey summons and contempt of a court.”
She agreed with the commission’s counsel that the case was unprecedented with regards to the amplitude of the contempt demonstrated, coming from a former head of state.
“In fact, looking to our jurisprudence for guidance has proven to be a tremendously unhelpful exercise. My difficulty is that the instances of contempt that I have come across come nowhere close to the contempt in this matter.”
Khampepe said the court was imposing 15 months, because it had to send a signal that Zuma’s conduct deserved rebuke in the strongest sense.
“I do so in the knowledge that this cannot properly capture the damage that Mr Zuma has done to the dignity and integrity of the judicial system of a democratic and constitutional nation.”
Read the full judgment below:
Secretary of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry v Zuma Judgment by Mail and Guardian on Scribd