The move to detain Mr. Zuma, a comrade of Nelson Mandela and one of the dominant figures in the governing African National Congress party since apartheid ended in 1994, was a notable development in the legacy of corruption that shadowed his years in power. Mr. Zuma was not in court on Tuesday, and he was not immediately taken into custody.
The decision by the Constitutional Court to have Mr. Zuma arrested came five months after that same body ordered him to appear before the corruption inquiry, led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.
But Mr. Zuma brazenly defied the court. Not only did he fail to show up to testify before the inquiry, but he also ignored the high court’s contempt proceedings, declining to so much as mount a defense.
The call to imprison Mr. Zuma for his defiance comes at a time when many fed-up South Africans seem to have coalesced behind the efforts of the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, to root out corruption in the government and the A.N.C. party.
The looting of public enterprises by government officials has taken a heavy toll on the lives of ordinary citizens, felt in problems like the shoddy delivery of services, frequent power outages and water shortages. Frustrated South Africans are protesting on a frequent basis.
Mr. Zuma, 79, has in many ways become the most potent representation of government leadership gone astray.
In a bid to regain public confidence, the current president, Mr. Ramaphosa, has in recent months gone after some of his own party’s leading figures — including the health minister, in the middle of the pandemic, and the A.N.C. secretary-general, the third-most powerful member of the party — who have been accused of corruption, forcing them to step aside from their roles within the A.N.C. while they face charges.
It was a decisive move that many South Africans have said was long overdue. But it also has caused a split within the party. Although Mr. Ramaphosa appears to have the support of a majority of the A.N.C., there remains a strong core of Zuma loyalists.