Uncertainty deepened Wednesday over the future of South Africa’s ex-president Jacob Zuma, hours ahead of a deadline for his arrest to start serving a 15-month jail term for contempt, as he pleaded with the country’s top court for a 11th hour reprieve.
In an urgent request to the Constitutional Court seen late Wednesday, Zuma’s lawyers asked it to “direct the suspension of its orders.. to prevent our client from being arrested prior to all legal processes being finalised”.
Police had earlier on Wednesday warned they were prepared to arrest Zuma by a midnight deadline to enforce the jail sentence against him, unless the country’s top court instructed otherwise.
In a historic ruling, the apex court last week handed Zuma a 15-month term for snubbing anti-graft investigators.
Zuma mounted a last-ditch legal defence and refused to turn himself in by Sunday night as the court ordered. Under the ruling, police were given three days to arrest him if he failed to surrender.
“If we don’t hear anything from the Constitutional Court — which we haven’t heard so far — we have until midnight tonight to execute the (arrest) order,” police minister’s spokeswoman, Lirandzu Themba, told AFP.
On Tuesday, police had appeared to give Zuma a breathing space, saying they would wait until the outcome of his legal battle — a process that culminates on July 12.
Zuma’s first application to halt execution of his imminent arrest was heard on Tuesday but the judgement was reserved until Friday.
Separately, he has pleaded with the Constitutional Court to reconsider and rescind its jail order. That challenge will be heard next Monday.
The arrest warning came after Police Minister Bheki Cele was quoted in local media as saying he would not take the blame if there was a failure to arrest Zuma.
“I’m not prepared to be charged for contempt of court,” online site News24 quoted him as saying.
By Wednesday evening police officers were stationed in Eshowe, a town 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Zuma’s rural Nkandla home in southeastern Kwa-Zulu Natal province, according to local media.
Zuma’s foundation tweeted Wednesday that it was “very concerned about unfolding developments and (was) monitoring the situation very closely.”
His lawyers “are in touch with the relevant authorities,” it said.
Attorney Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, on behalf of the anti-corruption panel, told Tuesday’s court hearing that the arrest order “is manifest. All it needs to be done is to be enforced”.
Zuma, 79, was forced out of office in 2018 and replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa after a nine-year tenure stained by corruption scandals and the taint of cronyism.
Critics nicknamed him the “Teflon president” for his perceived ability to sidestep the verdict of justice.
But his fortunes changed on June 29 when the court issued its damning judgement against him for contempt.
Zuma had refused to obey a court order to appear before a commission probing the siphoning off of state assets under his presidency.
Despite his tarnished reputation, the former president carries substantial weight among officials and grassroots members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
At the weekend he told his supporters that there would be chaos if police “dared” arrest him.
The former herdboy was the ANC’s intelligence chief during the armed struggle against apartheid and spent 10 years in jail on notorious Robben Island.
Despite its internal tensions, the ANC said it would not interfere with the judiciary processes enveloping Zuma.
“These are matters for (the) law enforcement agencies,” party spokesman Pule Made told reporters. “We respect the independence of the judiciary”.
Zuma has also been accused of involvement in a bribery affair dating back more than 20 years.
He faces 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering relating to a 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and military gear from five European arms firms for 30 billion rand, then the equivalent of nearly $5 billion