JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — For practically three years, South African investigators have been unearthing an online of corruption across the former president, Jacob Zuma, in a public inquiry that has captivated the nation.

There have been bribes paid in top-shelf whiskey, luxurious vehicles and a cash-stuffed Louis Vuitton bag. Excessive-ranking officers distributed profitable authorities contracts in alternate for month-to-month handouts. That period of graft drained tens of billions of {dollars} from state coffers and has develop into probably the most notorious chapters of South Africa’s post-apartheid historical past.

Now, the nation’s highest court docket will decide whether or not Mr. Zuma might be held accountable for contempt of court docket, and for an period of consequence-free corruption, in a listening to that represents one of many biggest exams for South Africa’s democratic establishments in recent times.

“That is a fully vital second: The precept that each one individuals shall be equal earlier than the regulation is being challenged and the constitutional system itself is being challenged,” mentioned William Gumede, chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation, a South African nonprofit group. “Basically, the previous president is saying he’s above the regulation of the nation, he’s above the Structure, he’s untouchable.”

The listening to earlier than the Constitutional Court docket on Thursday comes a month after Mr. Zuma defied a court order to look earlier than corruption investigators, a transfer that challenged the legitimacy of South Africa’s authorized system and prompted the chief investigator to hunt a two-year jail sentence for Mr. Zuma for contempt of court docket.

The Constitutional Court docket is unlikely to impose such a harsh sentence when the decision is introduced within the coming weeks. Doing so might set off mass protests by supporters of Mr. Zuma and destabilize the nation because it reels from the worst coronavirus outbreak on the continent, an economic system battered by the pandemic and record-high unemployment.

Nonetheless, the listening to itself is seen as an essential second for South Africa, which has been plagued with corruption during the last decade, with few officers held accountable.

The case has additionally underscored the challenges dealing with the African Nationwide Congress, the social gathering of Nelson Mandela that has ruled the nation for the reason that finish of apartheid in 1994. Throughout Mr. Zuma’s nine-year tenure, the party became consumed by corruption scandals that tarnished its picture and sparked public outrage over mismanagement.

After Mr. Zuma was ousted from the presidency in 2018, the A.N.C. turned more and more polarized between loyalists of the previous president and supporters of his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, who vowed to crack down on corruption and restore the general public’s confidence.

Fierce resistance to Mr. Ramaphosa’s efforts from inside the A.N.C. have solid severe doubts over his potential to ship on that promise.

However the excessive court docket listening to on Thursday often is the starting of a turning level, analysts say. Not solely does Mr. Zuma face a potential jail sentence from the end result, however he will even stand trial in Might for allegations that he took bribes from arms dealers in the 1990s.

“For 15 years or extra, Jacob Zuma has been utilizing the power of the South African court docket system to place off his day in court docket” by interesting instances in opposition to him, mentioned Richard Calland, a constitutional regulation professor on the College of Cape City. “However he’s now working out of authorized runway. That is the second the place he lastly meets his Waterloo legally.”

Mr. Zuma has denied all allegations from each instances. In latest months, he has additionally accused the corruption inquiry’s chief, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, of harboring a private vendetta in opposition to him, and attacked the investigation itself.

Established in 2018, the investigation is named the Commission on State Capture, a time period that has develop into a buzzword in South Africa and refers to corruption at such a excessive stage that non-public teams successfully bought the ability to divert state sources into their very own arms.

Up to now the fee has interviewed more than 250 witnesses in televised hearings which have develop into a telenovela of types in regards to the nation’s deep-seated corruption. It’s anticipated to finish in June, and ship a report back to South African officers that might embody solutions for prosecution.

Taken collectively, the testimonies paint a damning portrait of post-apartheid South Africa the place relationships between former freedom fighters in enterprise and authorities reworked into felony enterprises and elites manipulated efforts designed to shift financial energy from the nation’s white minority to Black South Africans to line their very own pockets.

A minimum of 40 witnesses have straight implicated Mr. Zuma in preparations to plunder tens of tens of millions of {dollars} from state firms. In complete, an estimated $33 billion was siphoned from state coffers throughout his tenure, which led to 2018 amid public outrage over graft and bitter infighting inside the governing social gathering.