The chair of a South African judicial panel investigating mass state corruption said on Monday he would seek jail time for embattled former president Jacob Zuma over contempt of court after he again failed to appear before the commission.

The 79-year-old, who has snubbed previous summonses by the commission, refused to comply with a Constitutional Court order for him to appear on Monday before the panel probing graft during his nine-year tenure.

The commission's chair, deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, vowed to seek to have Zuma charged with contempt of court.

"The commission will approach the Constitutional Court and ask it to impose a term of imprisonment on Mr Zuma if it finds that he is guilty of contempt of court," Zondo said.

The court in January ruled that Zuma had no right to remain silent during the proceedings. 

The ex-president accused the commission of bias and demanded that Zondo recuse himself.

In a letter on Monday, Zuma's lawyers said their client "would not be appearing before the commission" which had set aside February 15 to 19 for his testimony.

Zuma, who had approached the High Court to examine Zondo's refusal to step aside, argued that appearing before Zondo would "undermine and invalidate the review application".

Zondo dismissed Zuma's argument, saying the apex court's decision was supreme and that he would seek to have him charged with contempt of court.

'Right to silence'

In the two-page "matter of courtesy" letter, Zuma's lawyers concluded that his refusal to testify should not be "construed to suggest any defiance of a legal process."

But the commission's advocate Paul Pretorius said it was in the public interest for Zuma to testify because he was president at the time of the alleged state corruption.

Zuma has been implicated in evidence from some 40 witnesses, to which he is expected to respond.

"Mr Zuma, perhaps more than anyone else is able to assist the commission in understanding what happened in the period under review," Pretorius said.

"It's difficult to understand why he would need to rely on a right to silence."

Zuma's refusal came a day after the ruling African National Congress stressed the need for all its members to cooperate with the commission.

"To allow anything else would lead to anarchy and open the floodgates easily for counter-revolution," the ANC said in a statement on Sunday.

Meanwhile, local media showed images of dozens of people, some wearing military regalia and ANC party gear, staging a vigil in support of Zuma outside his rural homestead in Nkandla in southern Kwa-Zulu Natal province

The group chanted and performed the "toyi-toyi" dance, a protest move synonymous with the struggle against apartheid.

Zuma, who came to power in 2009, was forced to resign in 2018 over graft scandals involving an Indian business family, the Guptas, who won lucrative contracts with state companies and were allegedly even able to choose cabinet ministers.

He set up the commission shortly before his ouster and only testified before it once in July 2019, but staged a walkout days later. 

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