South Africa’s Public Protector (Ombudsman), Thuli Madonsela, has welcomed the Constitutional Court’s judgment relating to her report on upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s private residence at Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal Province.
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng in a judgment delivered Thursday ruled that Zuma had violated the Constitution when he did not adhere to Madonsela’s recommendations that he repay a portion of the public money spent on non-security upgrades at the residence.
Madonsela said the judgment confirmed that no one was above the Constitution. She also expressed gratitude to the public and the media.
“We thank the Constitutional Court for the ground-breaking decision. Our gratitude also goes to the public for entrusting us with the matter and for supporting us throughout the process. We thank the media for bringing the excesses in the exercise of public power and control over State resources that resulted in the investigation in the report to our attention,” said Madonsela.
Meanwhile, the top six officials of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, held an urgent meeting in Johannesburg to discuss the implications of the Constitutional Court ruling.
ANC Spokesman Zizi Kodwa said the ruling party respected the ruling, especially when it comes to the powers of the Public Protector. He said the judgment showed that anyone can be held accountable. Kodwa said the ANC would carefully look into the judgement before taking any decision.
The unanimous ruling by the 11-judge Court, a central pillar of the democracy established at the end of apartheid, said Zuma had failed to “uphold, defend and respect” the Constitution by ignoring the Public Protector’s findings on his sprawling rural residence at Nkandla.
In 2014, the constitutionally mandated anti-corruption watchdog identified a swimming pool, cattle enclosure, chicken run, amphitheatre and visitor centre as non-security items which Zuma must pay for. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng gave the Treasury 60 days in which to determine their “reasonable cost”, after which Zuma would have a further 45 days to pay.
Besides hurting Zuma, the ruling was a vindication for Madonsela, a quietly spoken but steely lawyer described by Justice Mogoeng as “the embodiment of the Biblical David” fighting against the Goliath of State corruption.
“The Office of the Public Protector is one of the true crusaders and champions of anti-corruption and clean governance,” Justice Mogoeng said. “Hers are indeed very wide powers that leave no lever of government power above scrutiny.”
Standing outside the Court in downtown Johannesburg, opposition leader Mmusi Maimane told the media Zuma should be removed from office and said he would table a parliamentary motion to have him impeached.
Zuma has been under intense fire since December when his abrupt sacking of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene sent the South African Rand into a tail-spin. The Rand firmed to a near-four month high against the dollar as Mogoeng delivered his ruling.
The African National Congress (ANC) said it was studying the decision in detail given the “serious nature” of its findings. Its majority in parliament will almost certainly give Zuma political cover against any attempt to impeach him, but the judicial rebuke may embolden anti-Zuma factions within the ruling party to mount a challenge.
“It’s a major decision that is going to have a significant impact on our political environment,” said Gary van Staden, a political analyst at NKC African Economics.
“In most other places in the world it would be terminal for President Zuma but we will have to wait and see to how the balance of forces are playing out in the ANC.”
Much of the court’s ruling focused on whether the findings and recommendations of a 2014 report by Madonsela into security upgrades at Nkandla were legally binding.
Madonsela did not put a price tag on the five non-security features she identified. However, her report cited Public Works Department documents which outlined estimated costs of 2.8 million Rand (about 187,000 US dollars) for a swimming pool and parking garage for VIP guests, and 1.2 million Rand for a “cattle culvert”.
As President Zuma’s annual salary is 2.7 million Rand, if any payments are made on his behalf, they would be liable for income tax at 41 per cent.
Last month, Zuma’s legal team admitted they were worried about political fallout from the case in mid-year provincial elections, urging the court not to wander too far from its explicitly legal mandate.
“This is a delicate time in a dangerous year,” Zuma’s lawyer, Jeremy Gauntlett, told the court. “It will be wrong if this Court makes a ruling which may result in a call for impeachment.”