NKANDLA, South Africa — Human rights groups welcomed the imprisonment Thursday of former South African President Jacob Zuma, who began serving a 15-month sentence for defying a court order to testify at a judicial commission investigating allegations of widespread corruption during his 2009-18 tenure.
Zuma, 79, surrendered to authorities shortly before a midnight Wednesday deadline and is being held at the Estcourt Correctional Center in KwaZulu-Natal province, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) from his rural home in Nkandla.
He was put in the Estcourt prison’s hospital section for assessment and will be treated like any other inmate, Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola said. Zuma will be in quarantine for 14 days as part of the facility’s COVID-19 precautions.
“This is not a moment of celebration or triumphalism. It is a moment of restraint or to be human,” Lamola said in front of the Estcourt facility that can hold 521 prisoners. “We want to assure all South Africans that former president Zuma will be afforded dignity throughout his term of incarceration.”
The commission heard damning testimony from former Cabinet ministers and top executives of state-owned corporations that Zuma allowed members of the wealthy Gupta family to influence his Cabinet appointments and the awarding of lucrative state contracts.
Zuma will wear standard prison garb and will be eligible for parole after serving a quarter of his sentence, Lamola said. The prison will comply with rulings coming from the two court applications that Zuma’s lawyers have filed against his imprisonment, the minister said.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation said it was pleased Zuma is in custody but criticized him for failing “to abide by the deadline set by the Constitutional Court, thus continuing a pattern of disregard for the rule of law and for our constitutional democracy.”
The foundation said it is “profoundly disturbed by the willingness of Mr. Zuma to court public violence and lawlessness in support of political and personal agendas. … This is extremely dangerous in the contexts of a country where the rule of law is under siege at so many levels. … It is vital that Mr. Zuma and his supporters be held accountable every step of the way.”
Amnesty International South Africa also praised Zuma’s surrender and imprisonment.
“Due process must be allowed to take its course and the Constitution and the law upheld. Former President Zuma handing himself over goes a long way in showing that no one is above the law in South Africa,” said Shenilla Mohamed, executive director of Amnesty South Africa.
“Respect for the rule of law is essential for the promotion and protection of human rights and must be upheld without fear or favor,” Mohamed said in a statement. “We call on all parties involved to show restraint and remain calm.”
South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, which Zuma once headed, issued a guarded statement saying it “respects” his decision to comply with the law. The statement said he had made a “truly a brave and hard decision.”
The ANC reaffirmed its “unequivocal commitment to and defense of the Constitution, … the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary,” in the tweeted statement Thursday. It urged its members to “remain calm.”
Initial reaction was muted in Nkandla, where Zuma enjoys his strongest support. Hundreds of Zuma supporters had gathered there over the weekend, vowing to fight any efforts to arrest him, but they had left by Monday.
On Wednesday, Zuma turned himself over to the VIP security guards who surround him as a former president. The guards, all police officers, sped him in a convoy to the prison.
Meldrum reported from Johannesburg.