A chicken house and adjacent cattle yard, a swimming pool, an amphitheater and a visitors’ center were among the additions made to South Africa President Jacob Zuma’s private country residence with public funds for what officials called security upgrades.
But the nation’s highest court ruled Thursday that Zuma breached the country’s constitution by not repaying some of the millions of dollars spent on the improvements, which began in 2009 and included personal renovations.
Opposition parties immediately called for Zuma’s resignation and threatened impeachment proceedings in parliament. Neither is likely, however, given the substantial majority held by the president’s party, the African National Congress.
The Constitutional Court’s ruling may strengthen the hand of factions in the ANC working against Zuma, who is under pressure after his controversial December decision to sack a respected finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, and replace him with a less experienced figure, a decision Zuma was forced to reverse four days later.
Zuma has also been criticized over his friendship with members of a business family, Ajay, Atol and Rajesh Gupta, who are accused of influencing government appointments to advance their commercial interests. The Gupta family is in business with one of Zuma’s sons and has employed one of his daughters and one of his wives.
In addition, South Africa faces the possibility of a credit ratings downgrade over concerns including the country’s low growth, the government’s inability to rein in spending and its exposure to debts owed by state-owned enterprises.
Zuma and the ANC initially brushed off a 2014 report by the public protector, Thuli Madonsela, calling on the president to repay a portion of the money spent on improvements at his rural homestead at Nkandla, including the pool. The government originally claimed the spending was all for security upgrades but Madonsela reported that part was for items unrelated to security, and called for him to pay back part of the money.
The total cost of the renovations was 240 million rand, or about $16 million. Madonsela said Thursday that initial estimates had indicated Zuma should repay about 10 million rand, or $675,000.
The court ruled unanimously Thursday that Zuma had violated the constitution by ignoring Madonsela’s 2014 finding. The court ruling said Madonsela was “the embodiment of a biblical David…who fights the most powerful and very well-resourced Goliath.”
The court found Zuma “failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. This failure is manifest from the substantial disregard for the remedial action taken against him by the public protector in terms of her constitutional powers.”
After the ruling, Madonsela said leaders shouldn’t surround themselves with yes men and people who agreed with him.
“I would say to those who exercise public power, don’t reject those who disagree with you. You might just head for a cliff if you surround yourself with yes men,” she said.
The court gave the Finance Ministry 60 days to determine how much Zuma should repay. After that determination is made, the president will be expected to pay up within 45 days.
The government said in a statement that Zuma, who in January told the court he would repay a portion of the cost of the renovations to be determined by the auditor general and Ministry of Finance, respects the ruling and will consult with others “to determine the appropriate action.”
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