A ruling by South Africa’s top court that President Jacob Zuma violated the constitution doesn’t mean he’s leaving office anytime soon. He can still count on his African National Congress’s parliamentary majority to shield him from impeachment or a no-confidence vote.
Backed by the majority in the ANC’s decision-making National Executive Committee and with his party holding a 62 percent majority in the National Assembly, Zuma, 73, retains plenty of support as he faces the biggest challenge of his seven years in office.
“President Zuma also benefits from continued control over the intelligence and security services, and enjoys crucial political support from rural traditional leaders and key party fundraisers,” said Robert Besseling, the executive director of risk advisers Exx Africa. “As long as Zuma retains such support, he is unlikely to face a significant challenge to his presidency.”
The Constitutional Court ruling was the latest setback Zuma has faced since his decision in December to fire his respected finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, sparked a sell-off in the rand and government bonds. Since then, senior ANC officials have gone public with charges 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. His position may weaken further if the main opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, take control of major cities, including Pretoria and Johannesburg, in municipal elections due after May.
The controversies 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. The rand strengthened 1.4 percent against the dollar to 14.7334 as of 3:24 p.m. in Johannesburg. Yields on rand-denominated government bonds due December 2026 fell 5 basis points to 9.11 percent, the lowest in almost three weeks.
“The only thing that will lead to Zuma stepping down is if his supporters turn against him,” Bonita Meyersfeld, a law professor who heads the University of Witwatersrand’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies, said by e-mail. “I don’t think that will happen.”
In Thursday’s ruling by the Constitutional Court, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said Zuma “failed to uphold, defend and respect the constitution and the supreme law of the republic” because he failed to abide by graft ombudsman Thuli Madonsela’s 2014 findings that he should repay some of the 215.9 million rand ($14.6 million) spent on his private home.
Zuma argued that he didn’t need to pay because he didn’t order the renovations that included a swimming pool and a chicken run at his home at Nkandla in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal Province. The president backtracked when the case came before the Constitutional Court, and his lawyers said he accepted Madonsela’s recommendations had to be implemented.
The amount he must pay will be set by the Treasury, headed by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. He’s been engaged in a dispute with Zuma since the president refused to bow to his demand to fire tax chief Tom Moyane and backed a probe into a special investigations unit set up at the revenue service when Gordhan led it.
Zuma appointed Gordhan in December four days after his decision to replace Nene with a relatively unknown lawmaker sent the markets into a downward spiral.
The court ruling will strengthen Gordhan’s hand, said Dirk Kotze, a politics professor at the University of South Africa in Pretoria.
“Maybe this is one of the reasons why Zuma wanted to have a more sympathetic person as minister,” Kotze said. “There is almost no scope for President Zuma to justify his actions of the past.”
In its unanimous ruling, the court also found that the National Assembly violated the constitution for failing to hold the president to account and instructed Zuma to reprimand his police and public works ministers, who cleared him of any wrongdoing.
The ANC said it respected the ruling, calling the court “the guardian of the constitution,” while the government said Zuma was considering the judgment.
Zuma, a former intelligence operative who’s led the ANC since December 2007, has weathered a series of scandals over his political career. The former head of the ANC’s intelligence wing, he took office in May 2009 just weeks after prosecutors dismissed graft charges against him.
“This ruling has far-reaching political implications for the ruling African National Congress, especially in parliament,” Susan Booysen, a politics professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said by phone. “No longer does that party rule apply ‘to protect your president at any cost,’ but they actually have to scrutinize his conduct with regard to the prescriptions of the constitution.”