UPDATE: Former President Zuma handed himself over to police late on Wednesday evening. Read the full story here.
Days after the Constitutional Court last week sentenced former president Jacob Zuma to 15 months behind bars for contempt of court, he raised the argument that jailtime during the global Covid-19 pandemic could mean a death sentence at his age and suffering from certain co-morbidities.
The same argument was however raised last year by Tigon-accused Gary Porritt – without success.
The two men, both well into their 70s and both from KwaZulu-Natal, are known for pushing the legal system to the limit and it seems that Zuma, like Porritt in 2017, might have met his match this time.
Porritt, former CEO of former JSE-listed financial services group Tigon, was first arrested in 2002 and is, together with former director and girlfriend Sue Bennett, standing trial on more than 3 000 charges of fraud, racketeering and transgression of the Income Tax Act and other legislation.
As is the case with Zuma, who was first charged with corruption in 2007, but will only begin to stand trial on July 19 this year, the Tigon trial has been delayed for years and only started in 2016.
Porritt was out on bail until June 2017, when he was arrested for failing to pitch for a court appearance.
Presiding Judge Brian Spilg launched an investigation, and despite Porritt’s animated testimony about fainting spells and being on the verge of death, found that he intentionally failed to come to court.
He has been incarcerated in the Johannesburg prison, also known as Sun City, ever since.
The Covid card
After government announced the national state of disaster due to the Covid-19 pandemic last year, Porritt launched a fresh bail application on the basis of the risk of contracting Covid-19 in prison.
Advocate Mannie Witz, appearing for Porritt, argued that his age, underlying health problems – which include a serious heart condition, high blood pressure, skin cancer, back problems and a history of respiratory infections – together with prison overcrowding, which makes social distancing impossible, put Porritt at an unacceptable risk of contracting Covid-19.
Witz referred to a report from the inspector of prisons, retired judge Edwin Cameron, which confirmed the overcrowding, as well as a statement by Professor Lucille Blumberg, then a member of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, about the risk.
Judge Ramarumo Monama dismissed the application, saying it was all about concerns with the prison facilities and prison authorities’ capacity to protect prisoners. There are more appropriate remedies to address that, he found.
With regard to Zuma’s similar concern, there is of course also the option to have Zuma vaccinated against Covid 19, an option that will be available to all prisoners shortly as part of government’s roll-out plan.
Tigon trial judge Spilg early this year in fact chose to order Bennett to get vaccinated as soon as she is entitled to, and inform the court when it has been done rather than stay the trial indefinitely due to Covid-19 risks and disruptions as she and Porritt wanted him to do.
Monama also heard an earlier bail application by Porritt. When he dismissed it in March 2018 he made a direct comparison between the conduct of Porritt and Zuma. He said the delays in the Tigon case are totally unacceptable.
“This case has the hallmarks of the Zuma Principle – to drag the case through even when there is manifestly no prospect,” he said.
But the Covid-19 card is not the only Zuma card that Porritt has played before.
The ‘bias’ ploy
Zuma recently filed a special plea in the Pietermaritzburg High Court in May accusing prosecutor Advocate Billy Downer of bias in an effort to have charges of corruption, money laundering and racketeering against him dropped.
Commentators quickly pointed out that Porritt and Bennett tried this before, but their application to get rid of advocates Etienne Coetzee SC and Jan Ferreira was dismissed by the Supreme Court of Appeal and with that, their contention that they should be acquitted.
In both cases these prosecutors have been there from the start. They know the cases and the characters inside out and are critical for successful prosecutions.
The similarities between Zuma and Porritt are numerous. Both reached the top of their respective fields – Zuma a two-term president of the republic and Porritt as CEO of the best performing company on the JSE in the years up to 2000.
For both the tables have turned and in their old age they are running out of wriggle room in their legal battles.
Both have tried recusal applications, Zuma to get rid of Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo as chair of the Commission of Inquiry into allegations of state capture and Porrit and Bennett of trial judge Spilg.
Both are pleading poverty regarding legal costs, Zuma after a ruling that taxpayers are no longer liable for these costs and Porritt after he was unable to get legal aid, because he refused to open his financial affairs.
Porritt and Bennett are now representing themselves in the criminal trial, which is believed to be a ploy to get more leeway as lay persons and with the aim of forcing an unfair trail.
Both Porritt and Zuma have pleaded ill health as a reason for not attending court.
Porritt’s arrogance and disregard for the legal system has landed him among rapists and robbers in Sun City.
Time will tell, but seemingly Zuma is on the same path, even though his sentence is limited to 15 months with a good possibility of early release.
If the Constitutional Court’s sentence stands, both will stand trial from behind bars.
The wheels of justice turn slowly, but turn they do.