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Former South African president Jacob Zuma sits in the High Court in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, May 26, 2021, at the start of his corruption trial. Judgement handed down on June 29, 2021, in the Constitutional Court has found Zuma guilty of contempt of court, and sentenced him to 15 months of direct unsuspended imprisonment.

Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images

South Africa’s highest court has imposed a 15-month prison sentence on former president Jacob Zuma for his refusal to testify at an official inquiry into state corruption, setting the stage for deeper factional conflict within the country’s long-ruling African National Congress.

Mr. Zuma, who resigned in 2018, has defied a series of orders to testify to the public inquiry that has been investigating the corruption that flourished during his nine years in office, including allegations of bribery and looting of state companies by his son’s business partners, the Gupta brothers.

The 79-year-old former president is the unofficial leader of an ANC faction that has criticized the policies of President Cyril Ramaphosa. The court ruling could trigger a sharper clash within the party, although Mr. Ramaphosa appears to have support from a majority of its top leaders at the moment.

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After Mr. Zuma repeatedly condemned the corruption inquiry and walked out of the hearing room on the day of his scheduled testimony last November, the inquiry went to the highest court, the Constitutional Court, to ask it to impose a prison sentence for contempt of court.

In response, Mr. Zuma denounced the inquiry and the judicial system, portraying himself as a victim of persecution by unfair judges. But the Constitutional Court, in a 7-2 majority ruling on Tuesday, said he must be imprisoned for violating court orders to testify.

While many South Africans are hailing the ruling as a strong statement that nobody is above the law, the court decision could also create dangers for the country. Mr. Zuma’s rural home in KwaZulu-Natal province is already guarded by loyalists from a military veterans organization. He is unlikely to accept the court order, which could trigger a violent confrontation if police seek to enforce it. He has shown an ability to draw thousands of supporters to street rallies at which he denounces the justice system.

The Constitutional Court said the former president has five days to turn himself in to the police. If he refuses to do so, the police must arrest him within three days, the court said. He was also ordered to pay the legal costs of the case.

“Scurrilous, unfounded attacks on the judiciary and its members” cannot be tolerated or “met with impunity,” the court said in its majority ruling on Tuesday, delivered by acting deputy chief Justice Sisi Khampepe.

“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 … has elected to launch,” the court said. “Never before has the judicial process, nor the administration of justice, been so threatened. It is my earnest hope that they never again will.”

Justice Khampepe criticized Mr. Zuma for his “unfounded allegations” that he was victimized by the courts. His attempts to gain public sympathy are “an insult to the constitutional dispensation for which so many women and men fought and lost their lives.”

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She said Mr. Zuma, when sworn into office as president in 2009 and when re-elected in 2014, had pledged allegiance to the South African republic and its laws and constitution. It is disturbing that he has now “sought to ignore, undermine and in many ways destroy the rule of law altogether.”

The court rejected the idea of a suspended sentence, saying it would only “prolong his defiance and signal dangerously that impunity is to be enjoyed by those who defy court orders.”

Mr. Zuma has repeatedly insisted he would willingly go to prison rather than testify to the corruption inquiry. “I do not fear being arrested,” he said in February. “I do not fear being convicted, nor do I fear being incarcerated.”

On Tuesday, however, his political allies made it clear he would not accept the court ruling. They threatened to “resist” the ruling, without saying exactly how.

“The imprisonment of President Zuma is totally unacceptable!” tweeted one of his most prominent loyalists, Carl Niehaus, a spokesman for the military veterans who support the former president.

“In fact it is an utter outrage!” Mr. Niehaus said. “Now it is our revolutionary democratic right and duty to register our outrage, and resistance to this, in no uncertain terms, and we will!”

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Mr. Zuma is also facing separate corruption charges in a trial that resumes next month. He is charged with fraud and money laundering for allegedly taking bribes from a French weapons supplier, in a case dating back to a US$4.8-billion arms purchase by the South African government in 1999.

The official commission of inquiry into state corruption, headed by deputy chief Justice Raymond Zondo, said it welcomed the Constitutional Court ruling. “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.

The ANC said it is studying the judgment, but it pledged to uphold the rule of law. “Without doubt this is a difficult period in the movement and we call upon our members to remain calm,” it said.

South African liberation hero and retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, in a statement issued by his foundation, said the Constitutional Court ruling is a historic moment in the fight for democracy. “Our highest court has made it plain that our country’s Constitution is supreme and that no South African, not even a president, is ever above the law,” the foundation said.

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