Calls for Jacob Zuma to resign after South Africa court ruling
President violated constitution by not repaying taxpayers’ money used on his home
President Jacob Zuma: the constitutional court unanimously ruled that South Africa’s first citizen had failed to “uphold, defend, and respect” the constitution. Photograph: Mike Hutchings/AP
The court ruling on Thursday that South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma has violated the constitution by not repaying taxpayers’ money used for non-security upgrades to his private home is the most damning indictment yet of a leader plagued by scandals.
The constitutional court unanimously ruled that South Africa’s first citizen had failed to “uphold, defend, and respect” the constitution when he ignored recommendations made by an official anti-corruption watchdog tasked with investigating the alleged corruption.
In March 2014, following a lengthy investigation, public protector Thuli Madonsela found that many of the upgrades done on Mr Zuma’s rural home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal Province, were not security-related.
The work was instigated after a government security assessment was undertaken in 2009 and taxpayers’ money was used because, as an official residence of South Africa’s president, it needed a higher level of security.
But it transpired that in addition to the security features installed, construction undertaken included an amphitheatre, a cattle enclosure, a chicken run, helipad and swimming pool, among other questionable improvements.
Ms Madonsela found the president and his family had “unduly benefited” from the upgrades, and, as a course of remedial action, she recommended he pay back a portion of the funds used.
The public protector’s report stated the cost of overall upgrades amounted to 246 million rand (€14.66 million) but did not specify how much the non-security related upgrades came to.
However, since the report’s release Mr Zuma has gone to great lengths to avoid adhering to her recommendations.
After the president made submissions to MPs in the ANC-dominated National Assembly on why he should not pay back the funds, parliament voted to set Ms Madonsela’s report aside.
Mr Zuma questioned the public protector’s legal authority to compel him to adhere to her recommendations, and he twice got his own government to investigate the matter. Both ensuing reports exonerated him.
His refusal to abide by the public protector’s findings eventually prompted opposition parties to take the matter to the highest court in the land for clarification on whether her recommendations were binding.
The hearing took place in mid-February and on Thursday before a packed courthouse in Johannesburg chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng delivered a unanimous ruling.
“The remedial action taken against the president has a binding effect,” he said, and the “president failed to uphold, defend and respect the constitution”.
The chief justice went on to say that if compliance with the public protector’s remedial action was optional, then few people investigated by the body would allow it to have any effect. “And if by design it never had a binding effect then [it would be] incomprehensible how the public protector could be effective,” he concluded.
The South African treasury has 60 days to determine how much Mr Zuma should repay, and then the president has a further 45 days to make the payment.
The ruling has sent shock waves through the ruling African National Congress, which stood firmly behind the president in parliament by voting to set aside Madonsela’s report.
The ANC on Thursday said it had noted and it respected the constitutional court’s ruling but given the serious nature of the judgment delivered, it would study it in detail before commenting further. The party’s top six leaders meet Friday night to discuss the situation and what action, if any, it should take.
While Mr Zuma’s standing in the ANC has been untouchable for years, his grip on power has weakened recently due to the escalating number of scandals he has become embroiled in. As a result, how the ANC will react to the constitutional court ruling is unclear.
The presidency said Mr Zuma had taken note of the ruling and would take advice from state institutions before commenting.
Opposition parties were far less circumspect. The Democratic Alliance said it had set the process for Mr Zuma’s impeachment in motion. Its actions are supported by most, if not all, opposition parties. The Economic Freedom Fighters said it wanted parliament dissolved, saying it had lost all credibility due to its side-lining of Ms Madonsela’s report. It called on all opposition parties to march next week for Mr Zuma’s removal.
The public protector said the ruling was a victory for every South African who turned to her office to hold government accountable.
“Today is the day the constitutional court restored hope in the constitutional dream for every ‘Gogo Dlamini’ [“average Joe” or “typical grandmother”] out there, who needs to rely on the public protector to hold government accountable for improper conduct that may have wronged her,” she said.