South Africa’s highest court on Tuesday ordered the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma, the country’s former president, for 15 months on contempt charges, after he defied an order to appear before a corruption inquiry examining the breathtaking financial scandals that tainted his tenure as the country’s leader from 2009 to 2018.
The move to detain Mr. Zuma, a comrade of Nelson Mandela and one of the dominant figures in the governing African National Congress party since apartheid ended in 1994, was a notable development in the legacy of corruption that shadowed his years in power.
Many across the country hailed the ruling as a victory for this young democracy — a message that no one, not even a former head of state, is above the law. It could even have implications across the continent, where courts often take a back seat to powerful heads of state, said William Gumede, who leads the Democracy Works Foundation, a nonprofit focused on developing democracy in Africa.
“It’s going to inspire people across the continent — civil society, media, opposition parties — to actually take on former presidents and sitting presidents,” he said.
Desmond Tutu, the longtime activist and former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, called the ruling a watershed for the nation.
“We have arrived at a pivotal moment in our history, one of which we can all be proud,” he said in a statement. “In 1994, after hundreds of years of cruel injustice through colonialism and apartheid, South Africans voted for a constitutional democracy in which all are equal before the law.”
Supporters of Mr. Zuma, who maintains a fervent cadre of followers, blasted the decision as political and urged resistance.
Speaking to the South African Broadcasting Corporation, a spokesman for Mr. Zuma’s foundation did not say what the former president would do next. But he said that the court did not provide Mr. Zuma with equal treatment under the law.
“A dark cloud has covered South Africa today,” said the spokesman, Mzwanele Manyi.
Mr. Zuma, who was not in court on Tuesday, was ordered to report to a police station within five days to begin serving his detention. If he does not report by that time, the court ordered, the police must detain him.
Speaking for nearly an hour as she laid out the majority decision of the Constitutional Court, Justice Sisi Khampepe offered unrelenting criticism of Mr. Zuma, saying that his attacks against the court were unprecedented.
“Never before has the judicial process been so threatened,” Justice Khampepe said, reading from the 66-page majority decision.
Mr. Zuma had refused to testify before the corruption inquiry, led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. The Constitutional Court, in response, ordered Mr. Zuma five months ago to appear before the inquiry or risk being held in contempt.
Mr. Zuma brazenly defied the court. Not only did he fail to show up at the inquiry, but he also ignored the high court’s contempt proceedings, declining to so much as mount a defense. Instead, he wrote a 21-page letter to the chief justice, blasting the court as biased against him and accusing it of engaging in political chicanery.
That pointed attack on the judiciary, it seemed, helped to seal Mr. Zuma’s fate with the court. Justice Khampepe said that Mr. Zuma did not simply defy court orders, but he took things further by expressing open disdain for the court and the judiciary.
Mr. Zuma had launched “a series of direct assaults” on the judiciary, she said, “as well as calculated and insidious efforts” to “corrode its legitimacy and authority.”
“If with impunity litigants are allowed to decide which orders they wish to obey and which they choose to ignore, our Constitution is not worth the paper upon which it is written,” she said.
In deciding to jail Mr. Zuma, Justice Khampepe said that the sway he continues to hold as a former president was relevant.
“He has a great deal of power to incite others to similarly defy court orders,” she said.
The order to imprison Mr. Zuma for his defiance comes at a time when many fed-up South Africans seem to have coalesced behind the efforts of the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, to root out corruption in the government and the A.N.C. party.
Mr. Zuma was forced to step down as president in 2018 after losing a bruising internal A.N.C. battle against Mr. Ramaphosa, who served as his deputy. It was a humiliating defeat that Mr. Zuma has not forgiven.
The looting of public enterprises by government officials has taken a heavy toll on the lives of ordinary citizens, felt in problems like the shoddy delivery of services, frequent power outages and water shortages. Frustrated South Africans are protesting on a frequent basis.
Mr. Zuma, 79, has in many ways become the most potent representation of government leadership gone astray.
In a bid to regain public confidence, the current president, Mr. Ramaphosa, has in recent months gone after some of his own party’s leading figures accused of corruption — including the health minister, in the middle of the pandemic, and the A.N.C. secretary-general, the third-most powerful member of the party. They have been forced to step aside from their roles within the A.N.C. while they face charges.
It was a decisive move that many South Africans have said was long overdue. But it also has caused a split within the party. And how Mr. Ramaphosa, who has often stressed the need for unity within the A.N.C., responds to the order to imprison Mr. Zuma could be one of his most important tests, said Mmusi Maimane, a former leader of the country’s main opposition party.
Although Mr. Ramaphosa, who has the power to pardon Mr. Zuma, appears to have the support of a majority of the A.N.C., there remains a strong core of Zuma loyalists. Mr. Maimane said it was important that Mr. Ramaphosa push for the enforcement of the order to imprison Mr. Zuma and that the police carry it out.
“If we fail on those two scores, then actually the judgment is meaningless because, effectively, you can have a judgment against you and it’ll mean nothing,” he said.
Tuesday’s decision was announced in a sparsely populated courtroom in Johannesburg, with attendance limited because of rising coronavirus infections in the country. Justice Khampepe sat alone on a long, elevated, curved dais before a backdrop of the South African flag and a red brick wall, methodically reading the court’s decision. She spent several minutes reviewing the history of the case before diving into the majority’s rationale for ordering Mr. Zuma to prison.
Mr. Zuma himself began the corruption inquiry he has since shunned. Started in 2018, it came after a report detailing the extent of corruption in state-owned companies and government departments during his administration. In its far-reaching mandate, the commission has interrogated more than 250 witnesses.
Mr. Zuma is the first to refuse to testify. He has argued that he is not legally obliged to do so, saying Justice Zondo harbors a personal vendetta against him. The judge has dismissed the argument as baseless.
Beyond the commission’s inquiry, Mr. Zuma faces additional serious legal troubles related to corruption allegations.
He is being prosecuted on charges of racketeering, corruption, fraud and money laundering after being accused of taking bribes from a French arms manufacturer when he was deputy president in 1999. That trial was set to start earlier this year, but the case has been delayed repeatedly. Most recently, Mr. Zuma’s legal team has sought to get the lead prosecutor removed, alleging that he was biased. The case has been postponed until July.
While Mr. Zuma is a polarizing figure in South Africa, his considerable support raises the risk of protests by sympathizers and supporters.
In a video posted to Twitter, Carl Niehaus, a former A.N.C. executive, said he could not accept the court’s decision and called on other A.N.C. members to stand against it.
“It is now the democratic duty of every peace-loving South African who wants to see justice to stand up, to resist and not to accept this outrage,” he said.
Mr. Ramaphosa’s vow to root out corruption and patronage within the A.N.C., which has dominated South African politics since the end of apartheid, has faced strong resistance from a rival faction within the party.
Those internal battles may now intensify as Zuma supporters work to wrest control of the party from Mr. Ramaphosa, Mr. Gumede said.
“The Zuma camp, they will know the prosecuting authority will come for them,” he said, “and they will fight hard.”