JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — For nearly three years, South African investigators have been unearthing a web of corruption around the former president, Jacob Zuma, in a public inquiry that has captivated the country.
There were bribes paid in top-shelf whiskey, luxury cars and a cash-stuffed Louis Vuitton bag. High-ranking officials distributed lucrative government contracts in exchange for monthly handouts. That era of graft drained tens of billions of dollars from state coffers and has become one of the most infamous chapters of South Africa’s post-apartheid history.
Now, the country’s highest court will determine whether Mr. Zuma can be held accountable for contempt of court, and for an era of consequence-free corruption, in a hearing that represents one of the greatest tests for South Africa’s democratic institutions in recent years.
“This is an absolutely critical moment: The principle that all people will be equal before the law is being challenged and the constitutional system itself is being challenged,” said William Gumede, chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation, a South African nonprofit group. “Essentially, the former president is saying he is above the law of the country, he is above the Constitution, he is untouchable.”
Mr. Zuma defied a court order to appear before corruption investigators, a move that challenged the legitimacy of South Africa’s legal system and prompted the chief investigator to seek a two-year prison sentence for Mr. Zuma for contempt of court.
The Constitutional Court is unlikely to impose such a harsh sentence when the verdict is announced in the coming weeks. Doing so could trigger mass protests by supporters of Mr. Zuma and destabilize the country as it reels from the worst coronavirus outbreak on the continent, an economy battered by the pandemic and record-high unemployment.
Nonetheless, the hearing itself is seen as an important moment for South Africa, which has been plagued with corruption over the last decade, with few officials held accountable.
The case has also underscored the challenges facing the African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela that has governed the country since the end of apartheid in 1994. During Mr. Zuma’s nine-year tenure, the party became consumed by corruption scandals that tarnished its image and sparked public outrage over mismanagement.
Mr. Zuma was ousted from the presidency in 2018, the A.N.C. became increasingly polarized between loyalists of the former president and supporters of his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, who vowed to crack down on corruption and restore the public’s confidence.