A Setback for South Africa’s President

The country’s highest court ruled that Jacob Zuma violated the constitution when he used $15 million in state funds to upgrade his private estate.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

South Africa’s highest court ruled Thursday that President Jacob Zuma violated the constitution when he used $15 million in state funds to upgrade his private estate.

The Constitutional Court ordered Zuma to repay the money used for non-security upgrades to his Nkandla home, including a swimming pool, chicken run, cattle enclosure, and an amphitheater. The national treasury will determine the amount owed within 60 days; Zuma has 45 days to pay following that decision.

Zuma “has noted and respects” the court decision, a government spokesman said in a statement.

“The President appreciates and reaffirms the powers of the Constitutional Court as a final arbiter on matters of the Constitution in the Republic of South Africa,” the statement said.

In 2014, South Africa’s public protector, Thuli Madonsela, issued a report that found funds were used for non-security renovations and recommended that Zuma repay the money. But Zuma said the public protector’s recommendation was advice, not an order, and claimed other officials authorized the upgrades without his knowledge. He then ordered his own investigations conducted by the police and public-works ministries. One report described Zuma’s swimming pool as a reservoir to fight fire and, therefore, a security measure. Two opposition parties—Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Democratic Alliance (DA)—appealed to the Constitutional Court.

On Wednesday, the Constitutional Court unanimously found Zuma’s actions unconstitutional. The chief justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, said by “failing to comply with the remedial action, the president thus failed to uphold, comply, and respect the constitution.” He described Zuma’s denials and investigations as “substantial disregard” for Madonsela.

“The president may have been acting on wrong legal advice, in good faith,” he added. “But the illegality still stands.”

The scandal is the latest involving Zuma, who has, over the years, been accused of rape, corruption, and other misdeeds. The charges haven’t stuck, but the taint has. Wednesday’s ruling ends a six-year saga of reports, denials, and exonerations. South Africa’s opposition said Wednesday they would move to impeach Zuma, who has vowed to stay in office.

Julius Malema, the leader of EF, called Wednesday’s developments an “opportunity for South Africa to unite and remove a criminal from office.”

“Parliament has failed our people‚” he said at a news conference. “Let South Africa elect honorable people who will uphold the constitution.”

The DA also blamed Parliament, where Zuma’s ruling African National Congress holds a majority.

“Indeed it has been our assertion that Parliament failed to satisfy its constitutional mandate to hold the Executive accountable” to the Constitution, it said in their joint statement calling for Zuma’s impeachment.

Madonsela called the ruling “better late than never” at a press conference.

“Now the Constitutional Court has confirmed I did my job properly,” she said, “and it is someone else’s job to see what happens next.”