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Former President Jacob Zuma addresses the press at his home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa on July 4, 2021.Shiraaz Mohamed/The Associated Press

In a late-night drama that transfixed his country, South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma has surrendered to prison to begin serving a 15-month jail sentence for contempt of court.

Mr. Zuma, facing a midnight deadline on Wednesday night for his court-ordered arrest, waited until the last moment to make his move. Shortly before the deadline, his motorcade of luxury vehicles swept out of his rural home in KwaZulu-Natal province at high speed.

At first, there was no confirmation that Mr. Zuma was inside the motorcade. But a few minutes later, at just 14 minutes before midnight local time, his personal foundation confirmed that he was “on his way” to hand himself in to a prison in the province. Police Ministry officials also confirmed the news.

“Dear South Africans and the World,” the Zuma Foundation said in the announcement on Twitter. “Please be advised that President Zuma has decided to comply with the incarceration order.”

All three of South Africa’s main television news channels carried wall-to-wall coverage of the drama, while social media buzzed with reaction. Many called it a historic moment: Mr. Zuma is the highest-ranking politician to be imprisoned in South Africa in the postapartheid era.

The country’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, imposed the 15-month prison sentence on Mr. Zuma last month after he repeatedly violated court orders to testify to a public inquiry on state corruption. The inquiry has uncovered evidence to support a litany of allegations of bribery and influence-peddling during Mr. Zuma’s presidency from 2009 until his resignation in 2018.

After testifying briefly to the inquiry, Mr. Zuma later walked out of a scheduled appearance and refused to return to answer a long list of planned questions about the corruption allegations.

The Constitutional Court, in response to an application from the inquiry, had ordered the 79-year-old former president to hand himself in to prison by last Sunday. If he refused, the police must arrest him by midnight Wednesday, the court order said.

On Sunday, hundreds of supporters gathered at Mr. Zuma’s rural homestead, known as Nkandla. Many fired guns into the air and threatened violence if Mr. Zuma was arrested. A few returned to Nkandla on Wednesday night, but there was no violence. Instead they cheered Mr. Zuma’s motorcade as it left his home.

Mr. Zuma’s lawyers had launched two last-ditch court actions in recent days to try to overturn or delay his prison sentence, without success. One of his lawyers, Dali Mpofu, warned that the Constitutional Court’s order could cause bloodshed by sparking conflict with Mr. Zuma’s supporters. It could lead to “another Marikana,” he said, referring to the police massacre of 34 miners in 2012.

Mr. Zuma is the unofficial leader of a faction of the ruling African National Congress that has called for “radical economic transformation” and opposed the moderate policies of President Cyril Ramaphosa. His imprisonment could be good news for Mr. Ramaphosa, strengthening his political clout. The ANC has insisted that it cannot interfere with the court decisions against Mr. Zuma.

Late on Wednesday night, several ANC members welcomed Mr. Zuma’s decision to surrender. “A victory for the rule of law,” said Derek Hanekom, a former cabinet minister and current member of the ANC’s national executive committee.

Philly Mapulane, an ANC member of Parliament, said the rule of law and the sanctity of the Constitution “reigns supreme” after Mr. Zuma’s surrender. “The impunity witnessed over the past couple of days in Nkandla has been nipped in the bud,” he tweeted.

Mr. Zuma’s supporters were defiant. The ANC’s secretary-general, Ace Magashule, who himself has been suspended from office because of corruption charges, tweeted to Mr. Zuma: “Be strong now because things will get better. It might be stormy now, but it can’t rain forever.”

One of the former president’s daughters, Dudu Zuma-Sambudla, said she had spoken to her father as he was heading to prison and he was “in high spirits.” She recalled how Mr. Zuma had been jailed at Robben Island for his anti-apartheid activities in the 1960s. “He said that he hopes they still have his same overalls from Robben Island,” she tweeted.

Mr. Zuma’s spokesperson, Mzwanele Manyi, said the former president’s decision to go to prison does not mean that he is admitting any guilt. “He’s doing this purely for compliance,” Mr. Manyi said on eNCA television. “He’s just doing this to be seen to comply with the law. He’s a law-abiding citizen.”

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