Jacob Zuma’s private estate (pictured) in the hills of South Africa’s Zulu heartland, makes for a ramshackle presidential pleasure-dome. The South African public was billed 246m rand ($16.6m) for “security upgrades” to the property, but a tour of the grounds last year revealed shoddy workmanship, barren guardhouses and free-ranging goats. Although still opulent by local standards, the compound’s perimeter fence was broken and it suffered an infestation of snakes. This is, perhaps, salt in the wound of the most enduring scandal of Mr Zuma’s presidency, one that on March 31st found him in violation of South Africa’s constitution, according to a unanimous and scathing decision by the country’s highest court.
The Nkandla scandal has dragged on since the taxpayer-funded renovations were first reported in late 2009. An investigation by the country’s public protector (a position similar to an ombudsman) found that Mr Zuma had unduly benefited from some of the upgrades, including the construction of a swimming pool, a cattle corral and a chicken run. Thuli Madonsela, the public protector, called for Mr Zuma to pay back a share of the money. Instead, protected by the African National Congress majority in parliament, he dodged her findings. Mr Zuma assigned his own investigations, including one by the police minister (who is appointed by him). The minister argued with a straight face that not a cent of taxpayers’ money had been misspent. The swimming pool, he asserted, was in fact a “fire pool”, to be used in case thatched roofs caught alight. To prove his point he screened a film showing firemen pumping water from the pristine blue pool, set to an elegiac soundtrack of “O Sole Mio”.
South Africans are overwhelmingly cheering the court’s ruling, which they see as a push back against the corruption that has proliferated throughout government. “All is not lost,” said Julius Malema, a former acolyte of Mr Zuma who is now the leader of a populist party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, that won 6% of the vote in the last parliamentary election. “This judgment seeks to rescue our constitution and our country.”
The Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, said it would seek to impeach Mr Zuma on the ground that he had violated the constitution. Yet this move is unlikely to succeed: impeaching a president requires the support of two-thirds of the members of both houses of parliament, and such a vote would be easily thwarted by the ANC, which as 249 out of 400 seats in the National Assembly. It is unclear what action, if any, the ANC itself will take. A party statement said it “noted and respects the unanimous judgment”, and would study it in detail, given its “serious nature”.
The party is unlikely to act against Mr Zuma before the local-government elections, which are expected to be held in August, not least because it is riven by factions supporting and opposing him. Yet if it fares badly and loses control of major cities such as Johannesburg, Mr Zuma’s backers will have a harder time defending him.
The greater significance of the ruling is that democratic institutions seem to be holding. When Mr Mogoeng, who delivered the blistering judgment, was appointed by Mr Zuma he was initially seen as a yes-man. Another of Mr Zuma’s appointees was the sanguine Ms Madonsela, the public protector, who couldn’t stop smiling after the court judgment. South Africa’s democracy “was built with the understanding that there would be ways to compensate for failure in parts of the system,” she said. “Today was that day.”