South Africa’s highest court ruled that President Jacob Zuma violated the constitution by not repaying taxpayer money spent on upgrading his private home, a judgment that may further weaken him as he faces the biggest governance scandal of his seven years in office.
Zuma “failed to uphold, defend and respect the constitution,” Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said during a hearing Thursday of the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg. The unanimous ruling also found that the National Assembly violated the constitution.
The court said the president failed to abide by graft ombudsman Thuli Madonsela’s 2014 findings that Zuma, 73, should repay some of the 215.9 million rand ($14.6 million) spent on his home. The National Treasury must report to the court within 60 days on Zuma’s repayment. The case was brought by the two main opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters.
The court’s ruling comes in the wake of allegations by senior ruling African National Congress officials that the Guptas, a wealthy Indian family who are friends with the president and in business with his son, offered them cabinet posts in exchange for business concessions. The accusations have undermined an administration already facing an economy that’s set to grow at the slowest pace since the 2009 recession and a possible credit-rating downgrade. Standard & Poor’s has a negative outlook on its BBB- rating, one level above junk. Moody’s Investors Service rates South Africa’s debt one level higher.
DA leader Mmusi Maimane, outside the court, called on parliament to impeach Zuma. The bid probably won’t succeed because the ANC holds more than 60 percent of the seats in parliament. Previous attempts by opposition parties to oust Zuma have failed.
Zuma’s spokesman Bongani Majola didn’t answer calls seeking comment.
A special police unit known as the Hawks said Wednesday it’s investigating corruption allegations against members of the Gupta family, following a formal request by the Democratic Alliance.
Zuma, a former intelligence operative who’s led the ANC since December 2007, initially denied requesting the renovations at his home at Nkandla in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal Province that included a swimming pool and a chicken run. Probes by the police ministry and ANC-dominated parliament cleared him of wrongdoing. The president backtracked when the case came before the Constitutional Court, and his lawyers said he accepted Madonsela’s recommendations had to be implemented.
Any decision to remove Zuma would have to be taken by the National Assembly rather than the courts, according to Pierre de Vos, a law professor at the University of Cape Town.
“These are political issues that are not really decided by the members of parliament but by the leadership of the governing party,” De Vos said before the court ruling. “Unless there’s a change inside the party leadership and a hardening of positions against the president, there will not be a very drastic response by the National Assembly.”
Zuma’s December decision to replace his respected finance minister with an unknown lawmaker, the allegations that cabinet posts were being offered in exchange for business concessions, a resurgent opposition and divisions within the ANC in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal have all increased the president’s vulnerability, according to Daryl Glaser, a politics professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
“We are into the unknown and it’s very difficult to predict what might happen,” Glaser said.