South Africa’s police have sought to hold back from arresting Jacob Zuma until the former president has exhausted his legal challenges against his prison sentence.

A letter to South Africa’s constitutional court from the minister of police and police commissioner has fuelled concerns that the governing African National Congress is reluctant to jail its former leader. Protests at his planned arrest erupted in his home state at the weekend.

The constitutional court last week ruled that Zuma should go to jail for defying an order to attend an inquiry into corruption. Civil society activists hailed the decision as a moment for South African democracy and a confirmation of the independence of the judiciary.

Zuma, whose nine-year presidency was marred by allegations of corruption and economic stagnation, failed to turn himself in by a court deadline of Sunday. The constitutional court made clear that the police must take Zuma to prison by the end of Wednesday.

Former South African president Jacob Zuma waves to supporters who gathered at his home

But the 79 year-old, who denies all wrongdoing and says the accusations are politically motivated, has launched two legal challenges against the ruling, one in a lower court and one to rescind the original order, claiming that “sending me to jail during the height of a pandemic at my age is the same as sentencing me to death”. The challenge will be heard on July 12.

On Monday, the minister and national commissioner overseeing South Africa’s police wrote to the court. The police “will, out of respect of the unfolding litigation, hold further actions they are expected to take . . . pending finalisation of the litigation,” or direction from the court, the letter said.

The police minister appeared to backtrack on Tuesday and said that it would proceed with the arrest if the court did not direct it otherwise. “We have put the onus on the court to give us direction,” Bheki Cele, the police minister, told South Africa’s Newzroom Afrika television on Tuesday. “If they don’t give us direction, we do have a direction that ends at 12 midnight on Wednesday.”

Legal analysts have said that Zuma’s legal bids are unlikely to succeed and also that there was no reason in law for the police not to arrest him before the challenges were exhausted.

The court’s order to the police is already clear, and Zuma’s legal challenges were “completely irrelevant” to that obligation, said Dan Mafora, research officer at the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, a legal watchdog.

“The risk was always going to be that there wasn’t political will to carry out the order,” Mafora said. “It is obviously damaging to the ANC government to have to arrest a former president . . . they are trying to pass the buck as long as they can.”

The party was rattled by a show of force by Zuma’s allies outside his rural homestead in KwaZulu-Natal at the weekend. Members defied an official ban on gatherings under South Africa’s lockdown rules to don party colours and stand off with police in Nkandla.

The ANC remained divided on Zuma’s fate on Tuesday. In a statement the party condemned “counter-revolutionary calls for violence and even civil war” at Zuma’s homestead and criticised Zuma’s attacks on the judiciary.

“Any attempt to respond to legal and judicial matters through threats and acts of violence, from any quarter, is abhorrent,” the party said.

But the ANC also supported Zuma’s challenge of the order. Jessie Duarte, the party’s deputy secretary-general, said at a press briefing that the former president was “exploring every legal avenue that is available to remove or reduce the custodial sentence.”

“We would hope that comrade Zuma’s court application will be successful,” Duarte added.