Political clout and influence open the doors of prison, commentators say
Powerful people are able to utilise legal mechanisms such as medical parole in a way that ordinary people cannot
The impending medical parole of former president Jacob Zuma is evidence that people with political influence and the financial means have greater opportunity under SA law to be freed, according to legal and political commentators.
Zuma, 79, was sentenced to 15 months in prison in July by the Constitutional Court for contempt of court after refusing to appear before the state capture commission.
Zuma’s incarceration in July sparked violent civil unrest and rioting in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Businesses were looted and some burnt to the ground; more than 300 people were killed; and damage to the economy ran into billions of rand along with the loss of thousands of jobs.
Constitutional law expert Prof Warren Friedman from the University of KwaZulu-Natal said the medical parole decision, while legal, has major political implications and sends a message that if one is influential and has the means, one can exhaust all avenues under the law to find an easy way out.
“It does create the impression that powerful members of our society are able to utilise legal mechanisms to their advantage in a way that ordinary people cannot. This also creates the unfortunate perception that the law primarily serves the rich and powerful,” Friedman said.
While news of Zuma’s parole is being welcomed in some quarters, others are questioning its validity and refer to history repeating itself. In 2009 Zuma’s former associate, Schabir Shaik, was released on medical parole after serving just two years and four months of his 15-year prison sentence. In 2020 he received a presidential pardon and is now a free man.
Political analyst Protas Madlala said Zuma’s release will be a repeat of the Shaik outcome and he has yet to be convinced the health of the former president is at stake. “This has nothing to do with health. This is about politics. The ANC is in trouble financially and is administratively collapsed. They don’t even have people standing for by-elections.”
Madlala said the decision is a play on Zuma’s loyalty to the party and has “everything to do with the upcoming elections”.
“Zuma is a staunch ANC supporter. The ANC is what he has always fought for. He has the power to sway and instruct supporters to vote. He will not let the ANC suffer and his message will be that his arrest was personal and about himself and not the party.”
Details of the conditions of his parole are still unknown and the actual date for his release has yet to be announced.
The department of correctional services announced on Sunday that Zuma will complete the remainder of his 15-month prison sentence in the system of community corrections. The decision, taken by correctional services commissioner Arthur Fraser, is, “impelled by a medical report” pointing further to Zuma being either “terminally ill and physically incapacitated”, according to a statement.
University of KwaZulu-Natal law lecturer Suhayfa Bhamjee said that “the system of community corrections” means that even though he is at home, Zuma is still under the supervision of the department of correctional services.
“This effectively means house arrest. But without knowing the specific conditions, it is impossible to say what that means for his movements. Given that he has been granted ‘medical parole’, it is safe to conclude that he will be permitted to leave his home for medical care and treatment, barring any specific conditions to the contrary.”
The SA Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights (Sapohr) has urged the department of correctional services to also medically parole ill prisoners in the same situation as Zuma.
Sapohr spokesperson Golden Miles Bhudu said the organisation “wholeheartedly welcomes” the release of Zuma on medical grounds. “Needless to say, Sapohr hopes this particular incident would afford other less fortunate prisoners, who are in similar or even worse medical circumstances, the same treatment.
“Over the years Sapohr has lost count of incarcerated prisoners left to die alone, and a cold death behind the high walls, neglected, ignored and mistreated.”
Bhudu said Sapohr hopes the department will “use this golden opportunity to ignite the relevant section and act, to do the right thing and make the rules and regulations that govern medical parole in prisons worth the paper it is written on”.
Additional reporting by Suthentira Govender
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