By Siyabonga Sishi
NKANDLA, South Africa (Reuters) -South Africa’s ex-president Jacob Zuma lashed out on Sunday at the judges who this week gave him a 15-month jail term for absconding from a corruption inquiry, comparing them to the white minority apartheid rulers he once fought.
Zuma spoke at his home in Nklandla, in a rural part of Kwazulu Natal province, where hundreds of his supporters, some of them armed, were gathered to prevent his arrest.
“The fact that I was lambasted with a punitive jail sentence without trial should engender shock in all those who believe in freedom and the rule of law,” Zuma told journalists.
“South Africa is fast sliding back to apartheid rule.”
The constitutional court sentenced Zuma on Tuesday for contempt of court for failing to appear at a hearing in February of the inquiry led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.
On Saturday it agreed to hear his challenge to the jail term, suspending it until after a hearing on July 12.
The sentence was seen as a sign of just how far Zuma,once revered as a veteran of the struggle against white minorityrule, has fallen since embarking on a presidency beset bymultiple sleaze and graft scandals between 2009 and 2018.
Earlier on Sunday, gunshots rang out across Nklandla, as some of his supporters fired their weapons into the air, while others danced with spears and ox-hide shields — the traditional weapons of Zuma’s Zulu nation.
“I fought and went to prison so there must be justice and the rule of law. No honest person can accuse me of being against the rule of law,” Zuma told journalists.
The former president’s legal woes have divided the ruling African National Congress between his camp and that of his successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Zuma gave in to pressure to quit and yield to Ramaphosa in 2018. He has since faced inquiries into allegations of corruption dating from his time as president and before.
The Zondo Commission is examining allegations that he allowed three Indian-born businessmen, Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta, to plunder state resources and traffic influence over government policy. He and the Gupta brothers, who fled to Dubai after Zuma was ousted, deny any wrongdoing.
Zuma also faces a separate court case relating to a $2 billion arms deal in 1999 when he was deputy president. He denies the charges.
On Sunday, the former president reiterated his view that he is the victim of political witch hunt and that Zondo is partial.
“Judge Zondo began to … treat me unfairly and with bias,” Zuma said.
The 79-year-old has applied to the court for the sentence to be annulled on the grounds that it is excessive and could expose him to COVID-19, which “would put him at the highest risk of death”.
He told a news conference on Sunday that he had not been vaccinated against COVID-19.
(Writing by Tim CocksEditing by Catherine Evans)