Jacob Zuma goes back to jail — for 1 hour

Former South African president Jacob Zuma briefly returned to jail on Friday before being rereleased due to being a “low-risk” offender.

The Ministry of Justice and Correctional Services confirmed that Zuma had been remitted roughly an hour after he had handed himself over to Estcourt prison.

Justice minister Ronald Lamola told a media briefing that this was possible due to a “special remission” process allowing for the release of so-called “non-violent” offenders.

President Cyril Ramaphosa approved the latest remission of non-violent offenders from South African prisons in April 2023.

It seeks to help Correctional Services address its severe prison overcrowding problem.

According to the government, the occupancy rate of 143% posed a direct threat to “inmate health, security, and management” and could increase gangsterism in prisons.

While this remission might be controversial, it is not the first time it has been implemented.

Previous Presidential remissions included Zuma himself approving the release of 19,695 sentenced offenders in 2012 and former president Thabo Mbeki signing off on the releasing 31,865 convicted offenders in 2005.

The measure was also employed twice during President Nelson Mandela’s tenure — 1994 and 1998.

Special remissions of sentences are not available to any sentenced offenders, probationers, or parolees serving prison time for:

  • Sexual offences
  • Murder and attempted murder
  • Armed robbery
  • Certified as mentally ill and is detained in accordance with the Mental Health, 2002 (Act 17 of 2002);
  • Sedition, High treason, sabotage and terrorism;
  • Offenders declared as dangerous by the court in terms of Section 286 A of the Criminal Procedure Act, 51 of 1977;
  • Sentenced to life imprisonment;
  • Any escaped/absconded offender who evaded the justice system after being released on bail pending appeal and was still at large on 16 December 2019.
  • Violations under the Domestic Violence Act, 1998 (Act No 116 of 1998); and
  • Child abuse

While Zuma has not been sentenced to serve time for any of the above, the controversy relating to his release is that he only applied for remission on Friday, having arrived at the prison at around 06:00, and was released just after 07:00.

Journalists, including News24 editor Adriaan Basson, raised questions over the “special remission” process, which had not been subjected to Parliamentary scrutiny.

The Ministry said another 9,488 prisoners would be released under the process, but the fact that Zuma was beneficiary #1 and seemingly received “swift, VIP” treatment has struck a nerve.

Spokesperson Chrispin Phiri also told News24 that informing Parliament about the “special remission” was not legally required.

Nevertheless, it is possible this decision will be challenged in court, despite Lamola maintaining it would withstand legal scrutiny.

Ronald Lamola, Minister of Justice and Correctional Services

Zuma will not be on parole, which means he is a free man, although the department said it would “keep in contact” with all inmates released through the “special remission” process.

Zuma was originally sentenced to 15 months in prison by the Constitutional Court after he had failed to appear before the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, otherwise known as the Zondo Inquiry.

His arrest came in the early morning hours on Thursday, 8 July 2021, after a tense, hours-long standoff with police and senior politicians who tried to convince him to hand himself over.

However, he only served two months before being released on medical parole by then National Commissioner of Correctional Services, Arthur Fraser.

After a legal challenge from the Helen Suzman Foundation, the High Court and Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that Fraser’s decision was unlawful after he overruled a Medical Parole Advisory Board’s decision that Zuma should not be released on medical parole.

The courts ordered that Zuma must return to prison to serve the remained of his sentence.

A trial related to Zuma’s involvement in South Africa’s much-disputed Arms Deal with French arms manufacturer Thales is set to resume in the Pietermaritzburg High Court on 15 August 2023.

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Jacob Zuma goes back to jail — for 1 hour