South Africa’s highest court opens way to Zuma impeachment

President was not fully held to account over home upgrade scandal, rules court

Outgoing ANC president Jacob Zuma dances on stage during the ANC National Conference held in Johannesburg earlier this month. Photograph: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Outgoing ANC president Jacob Zuma dances on stage during the ANC National Conference held in Johannesburg earlier this month. Photograph: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

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South Africa’s highest court has ordered parliament to consider the impeachment of Jacob Zuma, adding to pressure on the president following Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as leader of the ruling African National Congress.

In a ruling on Friday, the constitutional court said the national assembly had failed to properly hold Mr Zuma to account over his failure to repay public funds used to upgrade a private home. The court last year ruled that Mr Zuma had violated South Africa’s constitution as a result.

Parliament must as a result “put in place a mechanism that could be used for the removal of the president from office,” the court ruled, although it said it had no power to compel any impeachment. Mr Zuma has yet to comment.

The court ruling comes just weeks after Mr Ramaphosa, the deputy president, narrowly won the ANC leadership over Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Mr Zuma’s former wife and his preferred candidate. The election to the party leadership has fuelled speculation that Mr Zuma could be removed to allow Mr Ramaphosa to consolidate power.

There have been growing calls within the ANC during the past year for Mr Zuma to quit over a series of corruption scandals, including his ties to the powerful Gupta family, who deny allegations that they used his friendship to influence government decisions. Mr Ramaphosa has pledged to root out graft as party leader.

Early exit

Analysts say Mr Ramaphosa would probably prefer to engineer any early exit for Mr Zuma through the party’s internal structures, rather than having to rely on opposition votes in parliament by launching an impeachment process.

Impeachment would need a two-thirds vote by MPs, more than the ANC parliamentary majority. In recent years Mr Zuma has survived several parliamentary impeachment or no-confidence votes after ANC MPs closed ranks.

Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, described impeachment as “very punitive”, adding: “It would effectively humiliate Zuma before the nation – and the ANC does not want to go there. The ANC will want to frame a dignified exit, as an undignified one would lead to a brawl in the party just after a bruising leadership contest.”

Mr Naidoo added that Mr Ramaphosa’s supporters would use the ruling to increase pressure on Mr Zuma if he does not go quietly.

In a statement on Friday the ANC said its national executive committee, the party’s senior decision-making body with the power to force Mr Zuma to step down as president, would study the court judgment and its implications at a meeting next week. The NEC is evenly split between factions loyal to the two men.

Grounds for impeachment

The opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, a radical left-wing ANC breakaway, called for MPs be convened to begin impeachment proceedings before Mr Zuma officially opens parliament with the traditional state of the nation address in February.

However, according to lawyers, the court’s ruling is likely to require a lengthy fact-finding probe by parliament into grounds for Mr Zuma’s impeachment. In a statement on Friday, parliament said it would “ensure finalisation” of the rules allowing for impeachment in order to comply with the judgment.

In a dissent from the court’s judgment, the chief justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, said that the ruling was a “textbook case of judicial over-reach” which interfered with separation of powers under the constitution. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

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