In a twist turn of events, former President Jacob Zuma of South Africa was spared from returning to prison after just an hour of surrendering himself to authorities. Zuma, who had been sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court, had initially surrendered to serve his sentence on Friday.
The 81-year-old former leader had been previously released on medical parole, a decision that was later deemed illegal by the courts. However, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola announced that Zuma’s brief stay in prison was granted as part of a remission program aimed at addressing the severe overcrowding in South Africa’s prisons.
More than 9,000 low-risk prisoners, including Zuma, have been released under this program since its inception in April. Minister Lamola emphasized that the decision was made by prison authorities without any political influence and asserted that Zuma did not receive special treatment.
The remission process seeks to alleviate the strain on the prison system by releasing low-risk offenders, as South Africa’s prisons currently hold 47% more inmates than their official capacity. This issue was exacerbated by a recent prison fire, which forced the transfer of nearly 4,000 inmates to other facilities lacking adequate resources.
According to South Africa’s Commissioner of Prisons Makgothi Thobakgale, Zuma reported to the Estcourt Correctional Facility in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal on Friday morning. He was briefly “admitted” into the system before being released just an hour later.
The decision to spare Zuma from returning to prison has generated mixed reactions across the country. AfriForum, a lobby group, has accused the prisons department of aiding Zuma in evading justice. The Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party, has expressed its intention to legally challenge the remission granted to the former president. In contrast, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in KwaZulu-Natal has endorsed the decision, stating that it’s in the nation’s best interest.
The broader public reaction has been varied as well. Some citizens argue that the government should prioritize pressing issues such as power outages, high crime rates, poverty, and youth unemployment. Others insist that Zuma should return to jail to complete his sentence. Zuma’s imprisonment in 2021 had triggered widespread protests and riots that resulted in over 350 deaths. He was initially sentenced for refusing to testify before a panel investigating corruption and cronyism during his presidency.
Zuma’s release on medical parole just two months into his sentence was ruled illegal by an appeals court in November. Last month, the constitutional court rejected an attempt to overturn this decision, solidifying the requirement for Zuma to return to prison to serve the remainder of his term.