It did not take long for Jacob Zuma to find a way out of prison. Within weeks of his arrest in July, the former South African president was moved into a private hospital, where he quickly racked up a $36,000 bill, which was promptly submitted to the government for payment.
Then, this week, he was awarded a controversial form of medical parole for an undisclosed illness, even though an advisory board had refused to approve the parole because his condition was considered stable.
Mr. Zuma’s rapid move from jail to more comfortable lodgings is a sign of his persistent influence in South Africa’s ruling party, despite the corruption charges and scandals that continue to swirl around him.
The 79-year-old politician lost the battle for the presidency when he was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018 after nine years in office. But he still has powerful allies in the government and the ruling African National Congress, where his supporters are fighting a rearguard action against Mr. Ramaphosa’s policies, which they have attacked as too pro-capitalist and insufficiently revolutionary.
Mr. Zuma was sentenced to 15 months of imprisonment in late June for disobeying court orders to testify at a public inquiry into state corruption. His loyalists, outraged at the sentence, triggered a wave of retaliatory looting and destruction that left at least 342 people dead.
His medical parole was approved by his long-time ally Arthur Fraser, the national commissioner of correctional services, who revealed on Wednesday night that he had overruled a recommendation by the Medical Parole Advisory Board, which did not approve the parole because it considered Mr. Zuma to be in stable condition.
The ANC appeared to welcome the medical parole for the former president. “We understand that he is not well, and our thoughts and prayers are with him,” it said in a statement on Tuesday after a meeting of its national executive.
The medical parole decision has sparked skeptical reactions from many South Africans, since Mr. Zuma seemed healthy in early July when he attended a lengthy press conference to criticize his prison sentence.
Mr. Fraser’s decision is being challenged in court by the opposition Democratic Alliance party and at least two legal advocacy organizations. But in an interview on the state broadcasting network SABC, Mr. Fraser insisted that the decision was “legal and procedural.”
He said: “I took the decision to place him on medical parole, and I’ve given a host of reasons. ... It’s in documentation, and it will be presented to whoever needs to see that. I’m sure Parliament will be asking.”
Mr. Fraser himself has faced corruption allegations. He allegedly provided secret recordings to Mr. Zuma’s lawyers in 2009, helping them win a temporary dismissal of the corruption charges against Mr. Zuma, who later named him as the head of the State Security Agency. Witnesses at the inquiry into state corruption have said that Mr. Fraser authorized vast amounts of secret payments for illicit operations to promote the interests of Mr. Zuma’s faction. A separate inquiry found that Mr. Fraser set up a covert unit inside the State Security Agency for similar pro-Zuma activities.
After becoming president, Mr. Ramaphosa removed Mr. Fraser from the State Security Agency but appointed him to the senior post at correctional services – a move that showed his unwillingness to challenge the Zuma faction, analysts said.
In a separate case, Mr. Zuma is facing 16 charges of racketeering, fraud, corruption and money laundering for allegedly accepting bribes for his role in a US$4.8-billion arms purchase by the government in 1999 when he was deputy president.
He has used an arsenal of legal tactics to delay those charges for the past 16 years. He was scheduled to appear in court on Thursday, but the case has been delayed again as prosecutors wrangle with defence lawyers over whether his mystery illness has prevented him from being fit for trial. Prosecutors are seeking to have Mr. Zuma examined by state-appointed doctors, but his lawyers are arguing against it.
Medical parole has been widely discredited in South Africa because of the controversial case of Schabir Shaik, the businessman who in 2005 was convicted of arranging bribes for Mr. Zuma in connection with the weapons deal. After serving about two years of his 15-year prison term, Mr. Shaik was released on medical parole in 2009, officially because he had a terminal illness. Journalists later spotted him on a golf course and at a luxury lodge, seemingly in good health, and he remains alive today.
The Helen Suzman Foundation, an independent group seeking to enforce the rule of law in South Africa, has written to Mr. Fraser to demand the reasons for Mr. Zuma’s medical parole. The parole decision was “shrouded in secrecy,” it said.
The Democratic Alliance, the country’s largest opposition party, plans to go to court on Friday to apply for an order declaring that Mr. Fraser’s decision on medical parole was unlawful.
“Zuma’s suspicious medical parole is another classic case of the ANC behaving above the law,” the DA said in a statement on Thursday.
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