JOHANNESBURG — A South African court ruled on Monday that a decision to allow former President Jacob Zuma to serve out a 15-month sentence at home on medical grounds after he failed to cooperate with a corruption inquiry was unlawful, raising the possibility that he may have to return to prison.
A court ordered the arrest of Mr. Zuma in June last year, for defying an order to appear before a corruption inquiry examining the financial scandals that tainted his tenure as the country’s leader from 2009 to 2018. He spent two months in prison before being granted medical parole in September 2021.
Mr. Zuma, 80, gained prominence as a leader in the fight against apartheid, where he worked alongside Nelson Mandela, but he was later forced to step down amid widespread frustration over failures by the governing African National Congress to address corruption and self-enrichment in its ranks.
The decision to grant medical parole to Mr. Zuma, who remains a polarizing figure, set the stage for a legal clash, with the country’s main opposition party and anti-corruption groups protesting the move to let him serve time at home.
In medical records submitted to a lower court, a doctor described Mr. Zuma’s condition as “worrisome,” pointing to the “unpredictability of his plausible life-threatening cardiac and neurological events.” Another found that his glucose, blood pressure and kidney function had gone “completely out of kilter” after just four weeks in prison.
A lower court nonetheless sided with Mr. Zuma’s opponents in December, finding that Arthur Fraser, the national commissioner of correctional services at the time, overstepped his authority when he defied the recommendation of the parole board and ordered Mr. Zuma’s release from prison.
The parole board had rejected Mr. Zuma’s assertion that his illness was terminal, but Mr. Fraser, a political ally of Mr. Zuma’s, overruled them, a move that the lower court called “irrational,” finding that Mr. Zuma’s health had not “deteriorated permanently or reached an irreversible state.”
The case then moved to the Supreme Court, which in dismissing Mr. Zuma’s appeal on Monday agreed with the lower court in finding that he had been unlawfully granted medical parole.
What happens now to Mr. Zuma is unclear. He could still appeal to the Constitutional Court, although he has not said whether he will do so. And the court left open the possibility that he might still have to return to jail. The prison authorities had previously said that his term expired on Oct. 7 even though judges were still evaluating his case.
“Mr. Zuma, in law, has not finished serving his sentence,” the five-judge panel said, adding that the decision of how the former president would complete his term would be left to Makgothi Thobakgale, who succeeded Mr. Fraser as the national commissioner of correctional services.
The Department of Correctional Services said in a statement that it would study the judgment and “clarify a way forward.”
The ruling “categorically set out that our constitutional order makes everyone equal before the law, that there are no special favors or special treatment,” said Nicole Fritz, the director of the Helen Suzman Foundation, one of the groups that took the case to court.
Since his release, Mr. Zuma has made several public appearances. In one news conference, he railed against the judges who ordered his arrest on contempt of court charges, accusing them of bias.
Mr. Zuma is trying to make a return to politics, and is seeking a leadership post in the African National Congress, which will hold elections next month.
He has also campaigned on behalf of his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is making a bid for presidency of the governing party, and has criticized the sitting president, Cyril Ramaphosa.
While Mr. Zuma had argued for his release from prison on medical grounds, he recently dismissed any suggestion that his health would now prevent him from returning to the African National Congress.
Speaking at a news conference late last month, Mr. Zuma insisted there was nothing wrong with his health, saying, “Looking at me, am I in the bed lying in hospital?”