South African court says Zuma failed to uphold constitution

South Africa's top court says South African President Jacob Zuma has failed to 'uphold, defend and respect' constitution

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma answers questions at Parliament in Cape Town, in this picture taken March 17, 2016.

South African President Jacob Zuma failed to "uphold, defend and respect" his country's constitution when he ignored the instructions of an anti-graft watchdog to repay some of the $16 million spent on his private home, the country's top court ruled on Thursday.

The Constitutional Court judgement comes as Zuma fights back against separate allegations that a wealthy Indian family influenced ministerial appointments in a scandal that has rocked his government.

The government said Zuma will reflect on a top court judgement that ruled he should repay some of the expenses spent on his home.

"The President will reflect on the judgement and its implications on the state and government, and will in consultation with other impacted institutions of state determine the appropriate action," the government said in a statement.

The 11-judge court gave Zuma 105 days to repay the cost of non-security related upgrades to his rural residence at Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal.


Zuma has also been battered by the country's sharply declining economy, but he retains a strong grip on power through his dominant leadership of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.

The security upgrades at Zuma's rural homestead, which were allegedly valued in 2014 at 216 million rand ($15 million), included a swimming pool, a chicken run, a cattle enclosure and an amphitheatre.

President Zuma's annual salary is 2.7 million rand, roughly 180,000 USD.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, the country's ombudswoman, ruled in 2014 that Zuma had "benefited unduly" from the work on the Nkandla property in KwaZulu-Natal province, and that he should pay back some of the funds.

In response, the president ordered two government investigations that cleared his name - including a report by the police minister which concluded that the swimming pool was a fire-fighting precaution.

But a week before the Constitutional Court hearing last month, Zuma surprised many by offering to refund some money, arguing that the case had been "highly politicised."

"What I have been refusing to do is to pay back the money [because] I don't know how much it is," he told parliament, repeating his position that he had done nothing wrong.

South African President Jacob Zuma's private residence in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal Province, some 178 km north of Durban

Zuma under pressure

At the court hearing, his lawyers conceded that Madonsela's report ordering re-payment was legally binding.

"It would not be surprising if the Constitutional Court found that there was a breach of the constitution and the law by the president," legal expert Pierre de Vos wrote in a commentary this week.

"But even if this is so, the Constitutional Court does not have the power... to order the impeachment of a president."

De Vos said the court might order Zuma to do what opposition lawmakers and protesters have been chanting for the last year: pay back the money.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) called the case "a seminal moment in South Africa's democracy" that could "place decisive sanctions on all those implicated in the abuse of public funds."

The DA brought the case to court along with the far left Economic Freedom Fighters party, which has pledged to press for the president's impeachment.

But the ANC dominates parliament after winning elections in 2014, and Zuma easily survived a no-confidence vote earlier this month.

Opposition parties hope to make gains in local elections this year as frustration grows over 25 percent unemployment and grinding poverty for many black people more than 20 years after the end of apartheid.

Zuma has recently endured renewed corruption allegations after Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas said he was offered the top job in the treasury by the Guptas, an Indian business family said to hold huge sway over the president.

Zuma, 73, will have completed two terms in 2019 and is not eligible to run for president again, but the ANC could replace him ahead of the vote.